“English” Don Cornwallis
It truly sucks that I have to write this. I’ve known Don was under a death sentence with a bad liver for a few years now. In my view another victim of government health care where bureaucracy picks and chooses who lives and who dies according either their bottom line or disapproval of a particular lifestyle. And Don had a particular lifestyle that’s for sure.
Back in the old Iron Horse in the nineties, I would read about what Don was up to, what he did with Psycho Cycles, what he was doing with SD Cycles in New York City and I thought to myself “That is the life for me, building bikes, raising hell and generally living life to its fullest”. The stories continued into THBC when it was formed after the demise of Iron Horse in 1998, by then it was the “Bayonet Brothers”, Don and Indian Larry living larger than life and, to use his expression; “kicking new holes in the world”.
With all that in mind, I jumped at the chance to attend a weekend party out at Flynch’s place on the Indiana/Kentucky border that Don was going to attend also. Don was three years younger than I and he looked it back then. He and Andy Hoffer were doing the New York City fish out of water act on the farm and I have great memories of that visit. It was also life changing for me. I told Don that he was doing what I wanted to do and he took the time to talk me out of it. “This isn’t what you want” he told me, “This is a hard life with more lows than highs and people are lining up to either screw you or replace you. It’s a constant state of hustle.” We continued the conversation and he totally convinced me I should take a different tack in the motorcycle world. For that I will always be grateful.
If the last name “Cornwallis” sounds familiar, it should. Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) was 1st Marquess and 2nd Earl Cornwallis. Best known in this country for his defeat at Yorktown, the last important campaign in the revolutionary war. General Cornwallis was a pretty good General and the British didn’t penalize him for the loss.In fact he accomplished more as the British Governer-General of India and as the Viceroy of Ireland. By all accounts, a pretty successful dude.
So this was the family Don was born into. Teenage boys often rebel against their parents, but Don turned it into an art form. Don’s father was an Earl, but Don’s behavior was a factor in the Earl cutting Don out of the will. Don got himself into a fair amount of trouble running with a ‘crew’ around London, he thought it prudent to get the hell out of there and go and to follow in his ancestor’s footsteps and attack the colonies! Initially as a drummer in a rockabilly band.
One thing led to another and in 1989 he and Steg set up Psycho Cycles and the rest is history. Well, almost... If it hadn’t been for Don and his constant pushing, the setting up of the Bayonet Brothers with Indian Larry in 1996, I’m not sure the world would even know who Indian Larry was. I’m not saying Larry’s talent wouldn’t have shone through eventually, but Don for sure raised the profile of the NYC choppers scene. Bikes that Don built captured the essence of the time, culminating in the world famous (because he made sure it was) “Babylon Taxi”, the black and yellow checker paint and gobs of attitude were instantly memorable.
After the demise of Princeton Publishing (and with it Iron Horse) the focus was no longer on NYC quite so much.Yeah, Don and Larry and Paul Cox were still knocking out some great stuff, since they were no longer right down the street from a magazine, it was down to Don to keep up appearances by writing and photographing great bikes for The Horse. Had Don stuck around long enough to be caught up with all that “Biker Build Off” hoopla, I’m convinced he would likely have been a household name, he came to life when you pointed a camera at him.
Don went back to the UK, I don’t quite remember the circumstances that led to that decision, but I knew he was working on a kickass Triumph Trident café racer that he named the “Slimy Limey”. He finished the bike but then had a bad wreck on it. He was laid up for a considerable amount of time after that and was lucky to have survived. It was about the time Don had been recuperating for a while that both his parents began to need help. Don looked after his parents until they died, some of you will be able to relate to the long struggle, physically, emotionally and monetarily that this long, drawn out process can be. Don was still not physically well himself, he developed the liver problem that would ultimately take him from us, but he stayed with mother and father until the end, all the while knowing he was still out of the will, with little to no help from his siblings. When Don found out he was not going to get any help with his liver, he decided his best chance was to return to the USA and try and raise enough funds to finance a liver transplant himself.
His plan was to rebuild the Babylon Taxi and then auction it to raise hopefully enough money for the procedure. When he announced his intentions, people started offering parts and Steg, who had moved Psycho Cycles to the North West offered to help out with the building, it would be like old times.
When Don arrived at Steg’s, the problems with using donated parts began to surface. The Shovelhead engine soon developed problems and eventually Don moved to Indianapolis to try and get everything together so it all worked. He ended up replacing the engine with an Ultima Shovel while he sent the original off to be rebuilt by renowned hot rod engine guy Tony Mohr. I ran into Don in Indianapolis last year at an event. I was a little shocked by how much he’d aged, but I suppose it had been ten years. I probably didn’t look too much younger myself. Later that summer, Don was set up at the Smoke Out XIII. The heat was brutal and it took its toll on Don, I was worried then that he didn’t look at all well. That was followed by Don being rear-ended while riding the Taxi II in Indianapolis. He broke a few bones and of course the cops blamed him for the wreck. Shortly afterwards, he moved out to Arizona and set about getting the Taxi back on the road. He pushed himself too far this time.
Don was the real deal. He was instrumental as well as influential on the chopper scene and leaves a host of media for everyone to see. Check out TheEnglishdon on YouTube, there’s a bunch of his work right there. He was loyal and generous to a fault and I was proud to call him my friend. I, for one, will miss him.