Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Talk Back #131 July 2013

“English” Don Cornwallis 
3/30/60- 5/13/13

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 cafĂ© 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.

Talk Back #130 June 2013


OK, quick quiz, three things happened in 1939 that would have a huge impact on the custom bike world. The Triumph Speed Twin was introduced in 1938, so that’s not one... The Knuckle came out in 1936 so that’s not one either. Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and England was drawn into World War Two, but in this case that’s not relevant.

Give up? OK, the answer is that three people were born this year, people who would influence custom bike building from the sixties onward. I, of course, refer to Sugar Bear, Ron Finch and Arlen Ness. This is as diverse a group as you could come up with but I don’t think you can discount their contributions over the years.
Admittedly, Arlen Ness has strayed away from what a lot of us consider aesthetically pleasing since the mid eighties. Ron Finch’s customs over years are definitely... unique. Sugar Bear has refined his style over the years, but remains probably the closest of the trio as far as sticking to the original concept.
Mr. Ness has undoubtably had the most financial success. Starting out as many do working out of a garage, painting motorcycles in San Leandro California. He began producing parts for custom bikes that he was able to showcase by ‘recycling’ the same 1947 Knucklehead over and over because finances wouldn’t stretch to a different bike. His early work was radical for the time and very influential. According to Irish Rich on our online forum recently when we were discussing the 1973 iteration of the Ness Knuckle: “As far as his style, he was right up there in the forefront of the Bay Area style of bike, and for ‘73, that bike was pretty much state of the art for that area.”
Personally, after the 57 Chevy-ish “Ness-Stalgia” little of his work has appealed to me. Especially his work with Victory and those rocket-ship looking baggers, but that doesn’t diminish the impact he has made over the years.
Ron Finch also made a name for himself making custom parts for choppers. Starting in 1965 with Finch’s Custom Styled Cycles in a building that was only a thirty minute ride from our Global Headquarters here in Michigan. In 1972 they moved to the Finch Castle in Auburn Hills and it became a showplace for Ron’s unique vision. I never did see the original shop, but the building was legendary for its decor. It’s a Home Depot now, but Ron started on new digs about twelve years ago and continues to add on to it on a regular basis. We did a little feature on it in issue #120. Ron Finch is just a different kind of guy, his mind doesn’t work the way anyone else would expect and at the same time he always has a smile and will take to time to chat. Pictures of him from the 70s and recent shots are eerily similar. If it wasn’t for the grey hair now, you’d think he had his own “Dorian Gray” portrait in the attic... or maybe he just looked like he was in his seventies forty years ago.. I dunno. He’s a great guy though and his parts are still bought and sold on a regular basis, even though he doesn’t actually make them any more. You can still see his springers and carriage tail lights etc. floating around on eBay and such.
Sugar Bear gets a lot of ink in this magazine, but it wasn’t always so. Sugar Bear was building kickass bikes that were actually meant to be ridden, but he never got the recognition he deserved in the motorcycle press of the day because of the dominant ‘whites-only’ attitude that prevailed for the first twenty five years he was in business. While most other springer manufacturers were content to not worry about the effects of rake and trail when fitting long front ends, Sugar Bear devised a system of different rockers that corrected trail for any given rake. Most of you probably associate him with the big #4 rockers that his long front ends usually have, but the Baker Drivetrain Panhead has the #1 rockers, my Triumph chopper has the #2 rockers and Sugar Bear’s most beautiful creation “Gorjus” has the #3 rockers. If anyone has a reason to be bitter about his treatment by the press, it’s him. Thankfully, he’s not, he recalls his mentor Benny Hardy telling him that he’d better just do this for the love of it all, because there would never be ‘mainstream’ recognition. Luckily on that point, Benny was wrong. People are still lining up for one of Sugar Bear’s springers. I believe he’s the only one of the three that still hand builds parts the public can buy.

They are all going to hit 75 this year, they deserve to be able to slow down a little but that doesn’t mean they will and their drive is what generated the influence they’ve had over the years. There have been many others of course, but I think you’ll agree these three are real stand-outs.

Talk Back #129 May 2013

My First Harley

I’m sure many of you have interesting stories about the first Harley Davidson you ever bought and this is mine. The one major difference here is that I just did it. Most longtime readers know that my main ride for the last decade or so has been my faithful Shovelhead but although I built that bike with a greater percentage of Harley parts than the factory uses these days, it was registered as an ‘assembled’ bike in 1998, not an HD.

Over the years following the first registration, the Shovel became less and less an HD by percentage of parts. The original 1981 cases had to be replaced with S&S cases, the original Panhead FatBobs were replaced by an aftermarket King Sportster tank, the original Superglide rear fender was replaced when Fabricator Kevin chopped half the original Panhead frame off to hardtail it and so on. Now, I’m not going to sit here and try to tell you that a Harley Davidson is only a real Harley Davidson if it still has all the factory parts... far from it. I’m just trying to illustrate that my Shovel was not registered as such and over the years has became less so. The flywheels remain 1981 HD however.

So... I’ve bought my first Harley Davidson.

I’m sure some of you that remember my editorial a couple of issues back, referring to the ‘lure of the new bike’ might jump to the conclusion that a brand new rubber mount Twin Cam now sits in my garage, or noting that elsewhere in this issue concerning the installation of a Baker TTP primary on my Shovel which now includes the provision to bolt in a starter, would indicate that because I am going to be 56 this year, I’ve given up on the kickstart equipped motorcycle. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
My first Harley Davidson is a recent score off Craigslist, a motorcycle that started off life as a 1953 FL. Of course it’s been screwed with by everyone that had a dull screwdriver over the last sixty years, but I’ve finally got the base for my seventies style longbike I’ve been dreaming about.
The claim was, of course, that the engine had been rebuilt (aren’t they all?), however the front engine mount is broken, so I’m going to have Dan Roedel pull the engine down to check it out and I’ll have the cases repaired then. It has a polished four speed that seems sluggish when rotated, Dan is going to look at that at the same time. May just be ye olde oil in there. The back wheel looks great. It’s for sure OEM and mechanical. If I can find a way to use it, I will. In fact I’d like to use as little new stuff wherever possible on this build. The big exception with be the Sugar Bear springer I’m going to use, which will necessitate Fab Kevin hacking up the Wishbone frame somewhat. The bike came with a long Wide Glide with the OEM front brake and hub laced to a 21” front wheel. I wish I could use that front wheel, but the hub with the brake installed is just too wide for the Sugar Bear rockers. The oil tank has several dents, so I may have to replace it. I’ll be looking around for a cool king and queen seat and other 70s goodies. There’s a genuine British SU carb installed (loosely), but I’m disturbed  by how far it sticks out.

Although I’m pretty excited about this project, I have to remind myself that it’s going to take a while. Kevin is backed up with stuff for the forseeable future, but once the frame and engine is done I’m going to attempt most of the other stuff myself. Realistically I’m not going to make too much headway with this until later in the year. Never fear, as soon as I make substantial progress, I’ll be documenting it here in The Horse! I can’t wait!

Talk Back #127 February 2013

Goon Control.

There’s been an awful lot of speculation in the media lately about the supposed increase in violent gun-related crime. I thought this issue I’d take a stab at why I think this kind of thing occurs.

It’s the price you pay for having the third largest populated country with this amount of freedom. There’s 315 million people in the USA who are free and can do pretty much whatever they want (comparatively speaking). There’s everything from mildly pissed off people to the mentally ill to truly evil people out there. The vast majority of us will never encounter these people. USA is #12 on the list of countries with the most gun deaths per capita. Switzerland is only four below us. Right now, the media will want to go nationwide with crimes that in early December were just part of day to day living. 
10, 228 people were killed by alcohol related automobile deaths in 2010. Do we need prohibition back? Ban all cars? Prohibition did not work because alcohol consumption was ingrained in the society at the time. And still is. If all ten thousand were to die on the same day, there would be an enormous hue and cry and more stringent laws passed the NEXT DAY. But people will still drink and drive. Using the same logic as they apply to gun control, you would expect people popping up on MSNBC within moments proclaiming that ‘nobody needs a car that can do more than 70 mph” and introduce legislation to limit available horsepower in new cars and motorcycles. Totally ignoring, of course, the personal responsibility of the drunk drivers.
I’ve seen an estimate of 270 million privately owned firearms in the USA. These are all internet numbers from Wiki and other sources, but the number doesn’t surprise me. Sounds like a lot, but that’s less than one for every person. Add to that, the pesky 2nd amendment and it becomes clear that any new restrictive laws would ONLY affect the law abiding person. Criminals, by definition, ignore the law. There are way too many guns around for laws to have any effect… short of a house to house search and seizure, which would end up… messy.
It’s sad the tragedy at Sandy Hook is being used as a springboard to further political gain. The talking heads on television love to sit there and point at other countries with totally different populations, logistics and constitutions for the purposes of saying “see, it works here”, offering up simplistic solutions that make people feel that they are doing something because they care, because they are brighter than the rest of the population and are ready to savagely attack anyone who points out their folly. Does anyone believe this wouldn’t have happened if the Clinton-era so-called ‘assault weapon ban’ had still been in place? Or even the new yet-to-be-revealed laws? The AR-15 in question ‘looks’ military when in reality it functions just the same as any other widely available semi-automatic hunting rifle. Semi-Automatic seems to be widely misunderstood, it seems that the anti-gunners can’t get it into their head that all these do is fire one round at a time like a lever or bolt-action rifle. They are better described as ‘auto-loading’ guns. 
Although it happens fairly often, the media never reports the good that can come from carrying a weapon. Many people have avoided being robbed/raped or killed because they were able to defend themselves. Most criminals like easy targets, staring down the barrel of a gun convinces them to look elsewhere.
If you need more evidence that just having new laws will not work, check out the ‘war on drugs’ once. Many are illegal for many reasons, some of those reasons make sense, a lot don’t. Still, they are illegal. Does that mean they are now impossible to buy?
Meanwhile the government mandates things like airbags ‘for our own good’ (and insurance company contributions) when there have been many injuries and even deaths because of airbags.
What’s the answer? There really isn’t one. As I started this off, 315 million people with whatever percentage of crazy bastards that comes with. No amount of laws or pious pontificating by politicians or 24 hour news cycles showing every picture, talking to every parent is going to make any difference whatsoever.
On a personal level, I have a Concealed Pistol License and I carry my pistol every day. It’s no big deal, many citizens exercise that right. I don’t think it makes me a more of a macho man or some kind of a Billy Bad-Ass. I have a family, I have children and a wife. It is my responsibility to protect them to the best of my ability. That includes protecting myself, if we’re out and some nutcase decides he wants to make some sick name for himself by shooting innocent bystanders at the mall or wherever, I (and probably several others) will be able to do something about it, something other than just cowering in a corner and hoping for the best.

If we need to do something, it should be more awareness. Awareness of mentally ill people. Awareness of thugs that want to take what you have. Awareness that even through all this, the freedom that allows this to happen is also what makes this the best country in the world.