Common Tread

Inherited memories: The unlikely friendship that saved a classic repair manual

Feb 21, 2018

J.B. "Bernie" Nicholson's "Modern Motorcycle Mechanics" was first published in 1942, so the bikes in that classic manual are now classics themselves. But Nicholson's book retains its currency precisely because it remains the best repair manual for bikes of a certain age.

Nicholson’s story is an unlikely one, and it was an unlikely friendship that keeps his book — and his 1939 Triumph Speed Twin — alive today.

The story begins: Two kids on the plains with a motorcycle

In your mind, go back to 1931 — the depths of the Great Depression — to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Trust me, the only way you'd want to go there is in your mind, not in reality. It was a town with few people and fewer motorcycles. Most of the roads shriveled to two rutted wheel tracks within a few miles. They were impassable during months of winter snow; nearly so for another couple of months of spring mud. Nevertheless, 14-year-old John Bernard Nicholson and his older brother, Lawrence, delivered newspapers to earn enough money to buy a 98 cc Dot.

There was no Dot dealer in Saskatoon. They bought it by mail order. That wasn’t particularly strange; at the time, people bought entire houses from the Sears catalog in the United States or the Eaton’s catalog up in Canada.

It wasn’t exactly Amazon Prime, though. Although the Dot company happily accepted the boys’ Canadian bank draft, no one told the lads that Dot was in dire straits and that production ground to a nearly complete halt. When letters to the company went unanswered, they appealed to the editors of The Motor Cycle, who shamed Dot into shipping the bike to Canada. The Nicholson brothers’ Dot finally arrived after eight months. The next year, they ordered a 350 cc Douglas and sold the Dot at a profit. Nicholson Brothers Motorcycles was born. Their first shop was a shed made from wood they'd salvaged from motorcycle crates.

Bernie spent two years at technical school, but was really a self-taught motorcycle mechanic. At the beginning of World War II, he trained dispatch riders for the Canadian military. Maybe that experience honed his didactic skills; he certainly had a knack for understanding — and more important, explaining — the way motors worked.

Modern Motorcycle Mechanics
"Modern Motorcycle Mechanics, Seventh Edition." Photo by Mark Gardiner.
Once it was apparent the allies would win the war, he wrote Edward Turner describing the 750 cc twin that he felt Triumph must build if it was to succeed in the North American market. "Very interesting," replied Turner. Then he went on to explain that there could be no demand for such a machine in Triumph's home market. Besides, they well knew the existing design “would not stand stepping up to 750 cc.”

Bernie was only 25 when he printed the first edition of "Modern Motorcycle Mechanics and Speed Tuning" in 1942. Over the next couple of years, while still training dispatch riders for the Canadian military, Nicholson revised and expanded the book, and the Second Edition, published in 1945, included many detailed line drawings, courtesy of the respected English magazine, The Motor Cycle.

Nicholson continued to update the book right into 1970s. (My copy of the Seventh Edition includes a chapter on Kawasakis, including the Mach III two-stroke and the original Z.) All told, he sold over 100,000 copies. Johnson Motors, the storied western-region Triumph distributor, was a bulk purchaser; so was Floyd Clymer. It may be the best-selling self-published motorcycle book of all time.

Nicholson brothers
Bernie and Lawrence Nicholson on a field trip. Farmers and other motorcyclists far from their nearest dealership relied on Nicholson Brothers' mail-order parts and Bernie's clearly written manual to keep their motorcycles running. Nicholson/Williams archive photo.

By the late 1970s, the collapse of the British bike industry caused Nicholson Brothers to close their motorcycle dealership in Saskatoon. But by then, Bernie had accumulated an enormous inventory of British bike parts, and the parts business remained profitable. He moved the mail order warehouse about 400 miles west, to Calgary. By then his son, Mickey, had moved to Calgary, and the province of Alberta had a more favorable tax regime. Over the next 15 years, Nicholson gradually sold down his NOS inventory, and of course shipped copies of his book to mechanics worldwide.

That's how Greg Williams met Nicholson.

The story continues: Another kid tries to keep his motorcycle running

Williams was a 20-something punk kid, washing dishes in a Calgary restaurant, when he bought a 1971 Triumph Trophy. The seller handed over a well thumbed Nicholson Bros. mail order parts catalog and told Williams that the warehouse, which would have anything he’d ever need to keep the Trophy running, was right there in Calgary.

The TR6R was a daily commuter and indeed Greg did find himself needing parts. He phoned in an order, and when he went to pick it up, found he was dealing with Bernie Nicholson himself. The 80-something veteran made sure the kid left with a copy of "Modern Motorcycle Mechanics."

In 1993, the kid went to college to study journalism. The program he was in basically groomed grads to work on small-town weekly newspapers; there were still hundreds of such publications across western Canada. Greg had different aspirations.

“I religiously bought Classic Bike and The Classic Motorcycle,” Greg told me. “So I pitched a story to The Classic Motorcycle about Bernie Nicholson.”

Greg Williams
Greg Williams in 1994 with his Triumph, which he kept running thanks to Nicholson Brothers’ extensive supply of NOS parts. Greg Williams photo.

The editor wrote back and gave Greg the assignment. By then, the Nicholson Brothers warehouse had closed for good. Bernie had retired; the NOS stockpile in the warehouse was sold en bloc to a distributor in New Zealand. But Nicholson was still listed in the Calgary phone book.

“I don’t know if he remembered that I’d been a customer,” Greg told me, “but he said, ‘Come on up,’ and over coffee and cookies, I talked to him for three hours. That was really my first motorcycle magazine assignment.”

“Until the early '90s, when he was winding down the parts business, he was with it. I mean, you could ask him anything about British motorcycles,” Greg told me. Then he added, “But Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease.”

Bernie Nicholson
Bernie Nicholson, at home in Calgary in the mid-1990s. Within a couple of years, his mind started to go. Greg Williams continued to visit, giving Nicholson’s wife a break from caregiving and keeping the old man entertained by driving him to the Dairy Queen in Cochrane, Alberta. Photo by Greg Williams.
In spite of the old man’s diminishing capacities, Greg — who never had a particularly good relationship with his own father — kept visiting once a week. For the next three years.

“I went and visited him every Wednesday afternoon,” he told me. “We'd get in the car and go for an ice cream, just to kind of give him an outing. Sometimes he'd tell me the same story two or three times, but it was something for him to look forward to. Once or twice, we went to motorcycle shops, but it didn't mean anything to him any more.”

Bernie died in 2001. Greg pressed for Bernie to be inducted, posthumously, into the Canadian Motorcycling Hall of Fame. Greg helped the family dispose of a garage-full of motorcycle projects in various states of completion.

Bernie’s son, Mickey, told Greg, “If there’s a bike in there you want, please take it.” He knew right away which bike he wanted: Nicholson’s hill-climber, a 1939 Triumph Speed Twin, was the one, even though it was missing a front fork.

“At some point,” he told me, “a customer came into Nicholson Brothers looking for a fork for a '39 Triumph, and they were that passionate about keeping their customers on the road that they pulled the fork off Bernie's own bike and sold it.”

Greg Williams
Greg Williams in 2010 with the 1939 Speed Twin he accepted as a gift from Nicholson’s estate. Bernie’s son, Mickey, told him, “It’s not from us, it’s from Bernie.” Photo by Mark Gardiner.

About 10 years ago, Greg collaborated with Nicholson’s surviving family and wrote a biography of Nicholson, called "Prairie Dust, Motorcycles and a Typewriter." At that time, the family gave Greg the last hundred or so copies of the Seventh Edition of "Modern Motorcycle Mechanics."

Greg was selling those books on eBay when the title suddenly got a boost from Mike Brown, the author of "Building Budget Brits." Brown wrote a story that ran in Walneck’s Cycle Trader in which he basically said, “If you can track down a copy, buy one.”

In short order, the last few copies were sold, and since there was still demand, Greg arranged to reprint the Seventh Edition. Now the reprint’s almost sold out. (He’s also reprinted a few of the 1945 Second Edition versions, since they have more extensive chapters on pre-WWII U.S. models.)

A few weeks ago, I was back in Calgary and dropped by Greg’s garage for a coffee. I asked if he had plans to ensure a future for "Modern Motorcycle Mechanics." He mentioned that a big motorsports publisher had asked him about taking it over, on one condition: “They told me they wanted to change the title, because none of the bikes in the manual are ‘modern’ any more,” Greg said. “I told them, ‘Nah, that’s not going to happen’.”

So, Greg will likely reprint the reprint, sticking word for word to Bernie Nicholson’s last approved text. That's good news for anyone, like me, who needs a manual of exceptional clarity — even if you don’t own any of the now-classic motorcycles it covers.

The happy ending for the Nicholson story is that the kid became the custodian of the memories Bernie couldn't hang on to by himself. We should all be so lucky.