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Common Tread

The ballad of Uncle Bob: The allure of cheap motorcycles

Jun 17, 2019

Every story has a beginning and this one starts on Christmas Day, 1984, a few months before my second birthday.

During my career as a teacher, I had a lesson plan where my students would have to try to recall their first memory of a major world event. I would always lead with a personal example: watching the news with my dad in late 1989 when Tom Brokaw announced the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, if I’m being truthful, my first memory of major historical significance, at least in my life, happened on the evening of December 25, 1984.

I was at my mom’s parents' house and in the main living room, tucked away in the corner, was this multicolored afghan that was normally draped over the back of the couch. On this day, it was being used to cover a rather large and lumpy object. While the exact order of events are a bit blurry, I remember everyone gathering around the blanket in anticipation. My mom’s brother, Uncle Bob, moved forward, gave me a quick wink, and pulled back the cover on one of the most influential presents I have ever received.

It was a brand-new Tomy battery-powered three-wheeler.

Spurgeon Dunbar As a Kid
A photo of me with my Tomy three-wheeler. Photo by Barbara Jo Dunbar.

To my knowledge, that Tomy was the only new “motorcycle” my uncle has ever bought. It also kicked off a life-long friendship between the two of us which has, ever since, driven my mother completely nuts.

Uncle Bob was the youngest of six siblings and I was the oldest of three. He was 19 years old when I was born, 21 when he gifted me the Tomy three-wheeler, and 31 when he took me on my first real motorcycle ride on the back of his 1984 KLR 600. I was 12 and my mom was pissed.

Uncle Bob 1984 Kawasaki KLR 600
The infamous KLR that provided my first real motorcycle ride. Photo by Bob Quigg.

I was not only the oldest of my parents' kids, but also the oldest of all my cousins. Uncle Bob was more like an older brother figure in my life. The biggest life lesson he taught me was that you don’t need a lot of money to have a lot of fun.

Growing up, Uncle Bob had an assortment of odd, dilapidated vehicles. He would buy motorcycles from junkyards, fix them up, and run them until they died. On one occasion, a legal issue arose that prevented him from titling a 1984 Yamaha FJ1100 he saved from the crusher. Apparently, the bike had been stolen and wrecked, and when it was recovered, the original owner didn’t want it back. Uncle Bob reached out to his local congressman’s office, sweet talked the secretary, and within a few days a letter showed up with a clear title on his “new” bike.

His affection for wayward vehicles isn’t limited to two wheels.

Uncle Bob Chevy Impala
Uncle Bob in the late 1980s with his '72 Chevy Impala convertible. Photographer unknown.

In the late 1980s, he decided he wanted a convertible to ride around in for the summer. As funds were limited, he swung by his buddy's garage and took a torch to the top of his 1972 four-door Chevy Impala. He came by the house to give me a ride and again, Mom hit the roof. Something about the lack of safety belts on my uncle’s sagging homemade “deathtrap.”

When I was in my early teens, Mom figured it would be safe to let Uncle Bob take me golfing. He let me drive the cart and I sent it careening over a cliff before we reached the fifth hole. An old tree stump caught the rear axle and we avoided death. We slowly climbed out of the cart and pulled it back to safety. It would be years before we told mom about that one.

In college, I worked at a small family-run garage and when a customer didn’t want to pay to have his 1985 Oldsmobile Delta 88 repaired, I was tasked with driving it to the dump. Instead, I fixed it myself and then promptly took a Sawzall to the top, making myself a convertible for the summer.

Spurgeon Dunbar, Emily Quigg, Claire Quigg, and Jimmy Dunbar
My brother Jim and I taking Uncle Bob's daughters, my cousins Emily and Claire, for a spin. Photo by Barbara Jo Dunbar.

The first person I took for a ride? Uncle Bob. His two young daughters, my cousins Emily and Claire, were in the back seat.

By the time I came home with my first motorcycle, a brand new 2005 Triumph Bonneville, Uncle Bob had been without a motorcycle for almost 20 years. He responded by buying a 1991 Kawasaki Zephyr 550 for a thousand bucks. We rode together for a couple years before I moved away to California.

Uncle Bob and Spurgeon Dunbar
Uncle Bob and I reenacting our first ride together shortly after he bought the 1991 Kawasaki Zephyr 550. Photo by Barbara Jo Dunbar.

While I was away, the 550 was replaced with a used 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500. At $5,000, this was the most my Uncle ever paid for a motorcycle. And it served him well for many years.

By the time the Vulcan had entered the picture, I was living in Tennessee. Uncle Bob and my dad would ride south and we’d meet somewhere in the middle of Virginia and spend long weekends riding together in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We’d then head back to our respective states.

Spurgeon Dunbar and Uncle Bob on Vulcan 1500
Uncle Bob and I in Virginia with his Kawasaki Vulcan 1500. Photo by Spurgeon S. Dunbar.

After nearly seven years away from home, I took a job at RevZilla in late 2013. Soon I was bringing home all kinds of interesting bikes for Uncle Bob to try out. He gravitated toward more upright, sportier, machines, all of which left his Vulcan feeling heavier and more cumbersome than it already was.

He took advantage of test rides and demo days at local dealerships and earlier this year put his Vulcan up for sale. With couple of grand in proceeds from the sale, he began looking around for his next bike. For a while there I thought he might actually buy a new bike. He was considering some leftover Suzuki SV650s and Yamaha MT-07s. But he ended up gravitating towards a pile of used Kawasaki Versys 650s that sat gathering dust in a corner of our local dealership.

Knowing that our very own Lance Oliver had “recently” been thinking about selling his Versys 650 (Lance had been talking about selling his Versys for nearly five years at this point), I suggested Uncle Bob offer to buy his.

Initially, Uncle Bob was a bit skeptical. With nearly 90,000 miles on its clock, the Versys was no garage queen. However, Lance provided a dossier of maintenance records, repair receipts and supporting documentation in the form of Common Tread articles and personal blog posts that were comparable to what one would expect if they were buying a fully restored Vincent Black Lighting with a racing pedigree from a respectable auction house. To be clear, the quantity of information was auction-house level, but Lance's full disclosure included some negatives, too, like his low-speed highside on the bike on a cold tire, the one time in 89,541 miles it left him stranded and his non-Lemmy-approved repair of the exhaust. In the end, I think it was less Lance’s thorough documentation that swayed Uncle Bob and more his reasonable asking price of $900.

He agreed to buy the bike, sight unseen, and patiently waited for Lance to make his monthly sojourn to RevZilla’s headquarters in Philadelphia.

The Ballad of Uncle Bob
I am still waiting on my commission for brokering this deal. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

When the day arrived the deal was brokered at my kitchen table (I’m still waiting on my commission) with cash and keys trading hands. We drove together to the local tag shop and the deal was done. Lance boarded a flight back to Ohio and I loaded the Versys 650 into the back of my pickup truck to transport it to Uncle Bob’s house.

The Ballad of Uncle Bob
I can't tell who is more excited in this photo. Lance for offing the bike on a unsuspecting stranger or Uncle Bob for scoring a new motorcycle. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

On the way we made a quick stop by Martin Moto where my dad, who has been riding my old Bonneville, had dropped it off for some service work. The bike was done and Uncle Bob was kind enough to ride it back to my folks' for me.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by my mom. She’s mellowed with age and it takes a lot to get her riled up these days (raising three boys will do that to you). She took pictures of Uncle Bob with his “new” bike standing proudly in the driveway.

Uncle Bob with his "new" Versys 650. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

In the end, Uncle Bob got a new bike and still had a few dollars left over from the sale of his Vulcan to cover the cost of his “new” car, a 2003 Oldsmobile Aurora which set him back $1,000. “It’s the poor-man’s Cadillac. Plus, it had seven months left on its inspection, which is a big plus for me,” he said with a laugh.

I hear a lot of people talking about the prohibitive costs of motorcycling, but if I have learned nothing else from Bob over the years, it’s that’s simply not true. There is a lot of fun to be had in this world given you don’t have champagne wishes and caviar dreams.