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Common Tread

This journalist’s life: Salon des Refusés

May 19, 2017

When I got the assignment to ride the new Suzuki GSX-R1000 at Circuit of the Americas after the MotoGP weekend, I immediately twigged to the fact that it coincided with the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show.

That was relevant to me because for the last decade I’ve had a monthly column in the U.K. magazine Classic Bike. Attending one of the top vintage and custom shows in the country would surely yield a good column — and after keeping a column going for 10 straight years, let me tell you, I need all the fresh story ideas I can get.

I navigated to Revival Cycles’ web site and filled out the media accreditation form, listing Classic Bike as my media outlet. Before long, I started getting press releases about the upcoming show, so I assumed that after I clicked send, something was in fact received.

Handbuilt Show
The show’s held in the Fair Market event space in Austin’s Eastside neighborhood. I mean, from what I could see; I didn’t go in. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
I arrived in Austin on Saturday afternoon. After I checked into my hotel, I walked right over to the show with the goal of checking “Get material for next column” off my to-do list.

The only challenge to walking there was finding a way to cross Interstate 35 on foot. The upside to my route was, it took me past a house where O. Henry — a literary/journalist hero of mine — once lived. The neighborhood the show’s in, Austin’s Eastside, used to be home to scruffy light industry and warehouses, but yoga studios and web marketing gurus are moving into old welding shops. It’s become the kind of area where even homeless guys have Instagram accounts.

Classic Bike magazine
Classic Bike magazine. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
At the risk of sounding pissy, I’ll now point out that whether you, dear reader, have seen a copy of Classic Bike or not — and it’s probably “not,” because Americans pay about nine bucks a copy and get them months late from a handful of high-end newsstands — it’s the magazine of record when it comes to vintage motorcycles. I don’t just think it’s the best English-language print mag about old bikes, I think it’s the best bike mag, period.

I’m not saying I’m a big deal, but I’m saying it’s a big deal.

Or, maybe not. Because when I walked up to the ticket booth on Saturday afternoon and politely asked where I’d go to pick up a media pass, some dude barely looked up from his phone.

“Classic Bike?” he asked, vacantly.

At that point, in a slightly different world — the one I wish I lived in — he would have said, “Let me ask someone who knows something.”

Got wristbands? sign
That would be a "no." “Are you sure you don’t want to go in?” Stephen Pate asked more than once. “There’s a lot of nice stuff in there.” Photo by Mark Gardiner.
But instead what he said was, “Everyone who qualified for a media pass has already been contacted,” in way that made it clear what he really meant was, “Classic Bike? Never heard of it, you horrible old pensioner. You’re just trying to get in for free.”

Now to be clear on a couple of things: Being an independent motorcycle journalist is a terrible way to make a living, but I was good for the 15 bucks. And I’m pretty sure that if I’d said, “Listen you little shit, before I walk away to make you famous, I advise you to get Alan or Stefan on the fucking blower and tell them you’re about to turn Classic Bike away at the door.” At that point, one of the principals would have said, “Are you crazy? Tell him to wait right there and I’ll walk him ‘round myself.”

The thing is, this job will make you crazy and in order to keep my sanity I have a few simple rules. Gardiner’s Rule #1 is never beg someone to let you do them a favor.

A corollary of that rule is never pay a business in order to give it free promotion. (And to be clear, the Handbuilt Show is a business venture. Those guys at Revival are taking an admirably long view of the business; I think this is the first year they’ve even charged admission, but Revival and Handbuilt are conjoined brands.)

At that point, I ran into Vincent guru Stephen Pate, who was, like, “What? That’s ridiculous. I’ll get you in.” But the experience had already put me in the mind of the 1863 Paris Salon des Refusés. I figured, fuck it, if they wouldn’t let me in, I’d limit myself to the bikes that didn’t get in.

KTM-powered café racer
This gorgeous KTM-powered café racer was probably the bike I’d most like to ride away on, but I couldn’t find the owner so I know nothing about it. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

I corralled Pate as an impromptu judge and as we walked up and down two closed-off blocks of East 5th Street, we quickly determined that more than a few bikes out there were show-worthy. I rejected a Kawasaki W650 done up in the style of a Mondial because it was one of Revival’s own projects. A supermono-style café racer powered by a KTM LC4 was the most impressive build, but the owner was nowhere to be found. So, all I knew about it was, it was the bike I’d most like to own.

electric GSX-R conversion
Kit Davlin gives us a look into the heart of his home-brewed electric GSX-R conversion. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
A home-brewed electric bike built on a 1994 Suzuki GSX-R750 chassis scored points from both of us for its bitchin’ sci-fi/steampunk aesthetic and for a frankly terrifying first impression. I asked the owner/builder, Kit Davlin, if he’d ridden it from Denver and he laughed as he admitted that the batteries had come from old Vectrix scooters and it only had about a 40-mile range.

Pate and I were also taken with a clean, minimalist BMW R100R café racer that looked almost factory. I half expected to learn that it’d been built by the French BMW importer 25 years ago, for use in the Bol d’Or. The truth is, it was built in Idaho at a shop called Union. One of the shop partners, Luke Ransom, explained that it had begun as a customer bike but that the customer had run out of money part way through the project. Ransom finished the bike for himself.

In the course of building it, he basically taught himself how to hand-hammer aluminum. Gazing at the R100R’s fuel tank, I was struck by the difference between me and a real craftsman: I’d be thrilled to make a tank that good at the end of my career. But even Ransom admitted that if he was to do it again, he’d use the wooden buck he built first as a mold, and make the next tank out of fiberglass.

Randall Cater and his Knucklehead
After over 20 years as a high school shop teacher, Randall Cater retired and took his last class’ project with him. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Mark’s “best of show”

In the end, I bestowed my imaginary Judge’s Choice Award to a Knucklehead bitsa ridden into Austin by Randall Cater, a Texan who — as far as I could tell — got his fashion sense from Yosemite Sam.

I think I’m safe in assuming Cater never even applied to get his bike into the show and I doubt the curators would’ve been impressed by a replica frame and engine cases — although it was pretty clear Cater knew at least as much about old Harleys as most of the builders whose bikes had made the cut.

And, it was cool that after running independent bike shops in the Big Bend area for 15 years, he’d spent the last two decades passing on his knowledge as a high school shop teacher in the town of Presidio, about a mile from the Mexican border.

The Knucklehead began life as a police bike around the time of WWII, in the next hamlet over — a place called Chihuahua. Cater acquired it as a hard-crashed basket case half a century later, salvaged what he could and gradually accumulated what he needed to complete a functional motorcycle.

“I kept it at the school,” he told me, “and worked on it when I had time. But a couple of years ago the class said, ‘Mr. Cater, can we build your Harley as a class project?’”

Maybe it wasn’t a fancy restoration, but those kids had the benefit of Cater’s wisdom when it came to a functional build. He told me that the frame’s a replica of a 1940 H-D frame but tig-welded instead of sweated together. He recalled the frame had been made over a decade earlier, by an outfit from Minnesota called Blue Moon Machine. If so, it’s a frame builder that managed to avoid ever being mentioned on the Internet, as far as I can tell. (There’s a cool Blue Moon Cycle shop in Georgia by that name, and a terrific painter up in the Great Lakes region who calls his business Blue Moon Kustoms, but neither had anything to do with replica Harley frames. So it’s a mystery; Cater bought it ages ago, and he may just be misrememberin’ that “fact.”)

The original engine cases were also trashed. The kids rebuilt the motor on S&S Superstock cases — giving it the benefit of Timken tapered roller bearings instead of flat roller bearings in the bottom end. It’s stroked to 4.5 inches with Truett & Osborne flywheels and has Carillo rods. The cylinders are replicas made by a metallurgy prof named Ed Brown out in Kentucky. His cast-iron cylinders have thicker walls (as found in later Shovelheads, Cater told me). The cylinders are bored to fit standard 80 c.i. Shovelhead pistons. The heads are original to a 1946 or ’47 Knucklead, and so is all the valve gear.

WWII style paint
Randall Cater, an Air Force veteran, got the high school art teacher to duplicate graphics that once appeared on a WWII bomber. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Considering that it makes far better than 1940s power, I deducted no points for the fact the students modified an original front wheel to fit a disc brake. The rear rim’s a period item but the students followed Cater’s advice and laced it to a 1970s rear hub for another disc brake.

The kids take it to local bike shows around south Texas, and Cater rides it plenty in the Big Bend area.

As seen at Mama Tried and in Austin at last year’s Handbuilt. The Ardent is proof that Erik Buell wasn’t the only guy dreaming of shoehorning a big Harley motor into a tubular sportbike frame. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Ends of eras

The coda to this story is that within a few days of my return, I got an email from the editor of Classic Bike telling me that the mag was being redesigned and the fresh new look would no longer feature regular monthly columns. I’ll still write occasional features, which is probably better for me. But I was briefly wistful that after 120 columns without skipping a beat, my picture will no longer appear on my own page every month.

The thing is, while people say, “You should quit while you’re ahead,” and “Always end on a high note,” the opposite is true. I mean who really wants to quit when they’re ahead, and still hitting those high notes? If you quit then, you’d always wonder what even greater things you might’ve achieved if you’d stuck with it — whatever “it” might be.

Nope, you should quit when you’re behind. Ideally on a sour or low note so that, forever in the future you’d think, “I had enough of that.”

So having a haughty 20-something Austinite tell me that if I was on the accredited media list I would already have been sent my wristband was actually a perfect topic for a last column. And if I’d gone into the Handbuilt show, I would never have noticed Cater or seen his bike.

Cater just retired, so next fall the students in that high school won’t see him, either. I doubt the new shop teacher will propose a class project anywhere near as badass.