In the 1960s, William Gelbke dreamt of making a motorcycle that matched automobiles for smoothness and reliability. The handful of Gelbke Auto Fours he made nearly matched them for size, too.
I recently traveled to Chicago’s western suburbs to check out a Gelbke Auto Four.
The Auto Four’s creator, “Wild Bill” Gelbke, is famous for “RoaDog” — a 17-foot, Chevy-powered motorcycle-in-name-only that he built for his personal use in the 1960s. Wikipedia lists RoaDog’s weight as “3,280 pounds (1,490 kg) (dry).” I love that final note; as if the liquids mattered.
The Auto Four was Gelbke’s smaller, more reasonable (and thus lesser known) design. He’d envisioned putting it into mass production. So, although I knew it would be big, I expected to see something that my brain would process as “motorcycle.”
From RoaDog to reasonable: The Auto Four
Like his motorcycles, Gelbke was a larger-than-life character. It’s said that he was a trained engineer who worked at McDonnell Douglas in California before returning home to Wisconsin in the early to mid-’60s.
Gelbke built two RoaDogs in total. He must’ve had at least one friend who was nearly as crazy as he was, because that guy ordered one for himself. According to RoaDog legend, Gelbke rode it all over the Midwest. I’ve spoken to people who remember seeing him riding it in Chicago, but it’s strange that there’s only a few period photos of him on it. Wild Bill’s personal RoaDog is parked away from prying eyes, in a private collection in Green Bay, Wisconsin. RoaDog II — the bike Gelbke built for his friend — is displayed in the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. I’ve read that once the customer took possession, he realized it was too much to handle and basically parked it.
In the late ’60s, there might well have been a market for a motorcycle as smooth and reliable as the cars of the day. But even Gelbke had to admit that there wasn’t a market for motorcycles that weighed as much as those cars. (RoaDog actually weighed considerably more than the Chevy II that provided the motor!) So in the late 1960s or early ’70s, Wild Bill went back to the drawing board, which at that time was his shop on N. Cicero Avenue, on Chicago’s West Side.
Austin power in the U.S.? Yeah, baby!
Gelbke was still convinced that no motorcycle engine of the period offered acceptable power, smoothness, and reliability, especially for long-distance touring or police use. That meant using a car engine, but in the spirit of compromise, he settled on one from a smaller car.
He chose the 1,275 cc Austin America, perhaps because it was a relatively small motor with an integral automatic transmission and all the fasteners were sized in fractions of an inch. (Almost 60,000 Austin Americas were sold in the late ’60s and early ’70s. If you’ve never seen one, it’s probably because they were so prone to rust they were virtually water-soluble.)
The bike pictured here was Gelbke’s personal Auto Four prototype. It’s titled as a 1972 homebuilt. It currently belongs to Bob Mondo, an attorney and estate planner by vocation and restorer of weird and/or wonderful motorcycles by avocation. Mondo acquired it 15 years ago. Serendipitously, Bob’s grandparents owned a bar just a couple of blocks from Gelbke’s shop on Cicero, and Wild Bill was a regular there.
“This bike was being held as collateral in a bankruptcy,” Bob told me. “I went up and paid off the lien and trailered it back here. The motor was stuck. The wheels barely turned. I systematically took pictures and took everything apart.”
Gelbke’s prototype initially had a massive trailing-link fork conceptually similar to the fork on RoaDog, but he later fitted a fork from a Harley-Davidson FLH with a single “banana” disc brake. By the time Bob got it, the fork, triples, and front wheel were bent. (I neglected to ask whether they were bent in a crash or just from the sheer weight of the bike.)
“I tried to straighten them, but I couldn’t do it,” Bob told me. “I have all the original parts, but that whole front end is from a Heritage Softail. There’s a whole lot of preload on those springs, but it rides great.”
“The original shocks had all this preload on them, and they just could not hold up the ass end of the bike,” Bob told me. “It was really sagging. So I had these (QA1 automotive struts) made. We could put the other ones back on with the four bolts — it’s no big deal — but we made this is a rider.”
The rest of it is almost all as built by Wild Bill himself, but turning it back into a rider took 18 months. The motor needed new pistons but was re-buildable; it’s still even running the original, 50-year-old fan belt! Bob had the frame powder-coated and all the chrome parts were replated. Some original parts, like the instruments and 1959 Cadillac taillights, were put into storage and replaced with reproductions.
Over the course of rebuilding it, Bob realized that the frame is mandrel-bent chromoly; even tabs that hold a switch are heavy-gauge, with deep welds. But Gelbke wasn’t just “railroad engineering” it. The rear end combines a Harley-Davidson drum brake with a BMW hub carrier that’s been cleverly modified because the shaft’s on the other side. The tolerances are so tight that to reinstall the rear wheel, Bob had to re-assemble the entire swingarm, hub, and wheel, and then lift it all up into position on the frame.
I’ve never been more relieved to have a test ride canceled
When I first talked to Bob Mondo about his Auto Four, he enthusiastically told me that he’d ridden it thousands of miles. He and his son had just rebuilt the rear brake, and all he had to do to make it rideable was bleed it. The idea of riding it seemed fun, until I saw its Brobdingnagian reality. I immediately understood how Amos Gardlin felt when he wrote a feature story on it, back in 1972, for Cycle News East. “A radiator and cooling fan duct are mounted in front of the engine,” Gardlin noted, adding “[T]hey are barely noticeable because of the immense size of everything else.”
“Sit on it,” Bob said. Although the seat is commendably low, lifting it off the sidestand took a lot of effort. Gelbke claimed that the Auto Four weighed 1,300 pounds, but Bob guesses that his is closer to 1,500. (An Austin America car weighed 2,000.) I’m not ashamed to admit that when Bob told me there was still a problem with the rear brake and therefore I would not be able to ride it, I was actually relieved. Not for long, though.
“Ride this one instead!” Bob said. By “this one” he meant another one-off custom motorcycle with an automobile engine. At first, I thought it was another Gelbke bike, but Bob told me it was built — presumably about the same time as the Auto Four — by a guy in Indiana named Norm Randall.
The “Randall” is powered by a 140 ci six-cylinder boxer motor from a Corvair, mated to a two-speed automatic transmission. As you might expect, with a motor mounted transversely, it’s chain-driven (by the largest countershaft sprocket in the history of motorcycling).
In order to back the second bike out of its parking spot, we had to move the Auto Four about 20 feet straight ahead, into its spot in the garage.
“I really shouldn’t ride this, even this far, in sandals,” Bob said as he looked down at his flip flops. “When I’m working on this, I wear work boots. It’s that heavy.” He hit the starter on the Auto Four and moved it into the garage.
“Am I in?” he asked. I walked around the back to confirm that the garage door would clear those groovy taillights. That wasn’t a certainty, considering the beast’s 80-inch wheelbase. Then he straddled the Randall bike and did about a seven-point turn to get it pointed down the driveway. “The most important gear on any of these bikes is reverse,” he noted unnecessarily.
As I took his place on the ’cycle, Bob reassured me that while both the Gelbke and Randall were easy to ride, this one was the better handling machine. For what it’s worth, it was easier to get it up off the sidestand.
“OK, just hold the front brake and put it in Drive,” Bob said. Both the Auto Four and the Randall have an auto-style hand shift lever on the left side of the fuel tank.
After that it was basically twist-and-go. But as I tottered down the driveway towards a right-angle turn, the suburban street I was aiming for suddenly seemed very narrow, so I was careful not to twist it too much.
Previously, Bob’s son Joey had assured me that it only seemed huge for the first block, then it felt normal. But for my whole ride, I felt like a guy who’d just graduated directly from riding a Jet Ski to steering the Exxon Valdez. It wasn’t just that it felt big, it also felt so different that nothing in my riding experience seemed transferable. Like, I had to consciously remember to countersteer, instead of just steer it. I spent my whole ride thinking, “Don’t drop it, don’t drop it...”
The sense of relief I felt when I was told I couldn’t ride the Gelbke was nothing compared to the sense of relief I felt when I returned the Randall intact. If that was the good-handling one, I’ll settle for quoting Cycle News’ Amos Gardlin again, who reported that Gelbke’s Auto Four was dead smooth and stable at 100 miles an hour.
The world caught up with Wild Bill
By Bob Mondo’s count, only seven or eight Auto Fours were ever built, of which at least four survived. To be honest, the design probably didn’t deserve to see serial production. It wasn’t even the best motorcycle with a car engine. Before Gelbke even prototyped the Auto Four, Friedl Münch had already produced hundreds of Münch 4 motorcycles in Germany. Like Gelbke, Münch had come to believe that the auto engines of the day were superior to any available motorcycle engine. Münch, however, wisely chose compact, air-cooled NSU motors of 996 to 1,177 cc and patterned his frame after the iconic Norton Featherbed.
Depending on displacement and specifications, Münch 4s produced over 100 horsepower. Nicknamed “Mammoths,” these were the most expensive and powerful production motorcycles of the time, but at about 650 pounds, they were half the size of an Auto Four.
Münch’s design was far more resolved than Gelbke’s, but by the mid-’70s the Mammoth, too, was extinct. I blame Honda. By 1969, the Honda 750-Four already delivered the smoothness, reliability, and 100 mph cruising capability that Gelbke (or Münch, for that matter) claimed as their Unique Selling Proposition. Then in ’76, the Gold Wing further revolutionized heavy touring bikes; it was basically Gelbke’s concept, massively refined.
RoaDog and Auto Four were not Gelbke’s only designs. The last bike he built had a Chevy Corvair motor that he mated to a VW transmission. Bob Mondo also briefly owned and partly restored that one, too. Gelbke repurposed a farm tractor front tire as its rear tire. The tire was sold under the “Grasshopper” trademark, which is apparently why Gelbke gave that name to the motorcycle.
It’s a weird testament to Gelbke that so many of his idiosyncratic creations have been preserved. The Grasshopper belongs to that same collector in Green Bay who described it as “low and well balanced” but added that the clutch pull is a bitch.
By 1978, Gelbke had closed his shop in Chicago and returned to Green Bay. He was 43 years old.
There are several stories that purport to explain how Wild Bill ran afoul of the Green Bay police. According to one account, Gelbke had stolen one cop’s girlfriend decades earlier when they went to high school together, and the cop still held a grudge. I’ve read that Gelbke was involved in a domestic dispute, or that there was a dispute involving a dog. Craig Constantine, a TV producer who made a documentary about Gelbke, says that Bill had purchased a semi, and that the cops thought he was moving dope as well as truckloads of vegetables.
Any, all or none of the above stories may be true. But whatever suspicions or grudges the Green Bay cops may have harbored against Wild Bill, about a dozen of them arrived at Gelbke’s house, on the outskirts of town, one Sunday morning in November.
They called for him to throw his gun out. He may have fired his gun. A bullet may have grazed a cop. Or the cop may simply have slipped and fallen on ice. Seeing him fall, the others may have concluded he’d been shot. Those “facts” have all been disputed, but this one hasn’t been: The incident ended with Gelbke dead.
Years ago, I read some of Gelbke’s correspondence. He came across as hyperaggressive and abrasive. Bob Mondo’s grandparents knew him from their bar, so he’s got only two degrees of separation from Wild Bill. But to the extent that Gelbke put his soul into the bikes he built, and Bob spent 18 months restoring the Auto Four, I think hanging out with him is the closest I could ever get to meeting Gelbke.
So I was a little worried to admit that Gelbke struck me as an asshole. I waited until I was packing up, in case saying that hurt Bob’s feelings, but I needn’t have worried.
“Yes, a total asshole!” Bob agreed. “Hard-headed. Guys like us, we wouldn’t have gotten along with him.”
For sale: Gelbke Auto Four
Bob Mondo hasn’t ridden his Auto Four much over the last few years; he’s been busy with chemotherapy.
“I’ve had 15 years with it,” he told me. “Now it’s someone else’s turn.”
So if you want a ride that will flat shut down any bike night, contact me through the comments section. I’ll hook you up.