10 December 2009

Review: 'The Vincent in the Barn'

Like a therapeutic epiphany, when I began reading Tom Cotter’s new book, “The Vincent in the Barn,” I felt an immediate sense of relief. I realized that my own lifelong fascination with motorcycle archeology was not merely a random mutation, but a widespread genotype shared by others in America and around the world. Namely: An obsession for finding two-wheeled buried treasures in garages, sheds and basements. I was normal! (Sort of.)

For some, the enjoyment is in the hunt; others are motivated by profit; and some folks revel in the salvation of a forgotten historical machine. We are all kin.

"The Vincent in the Barn" ($26, Motorbooks) follows Cotter’s other works, “The Cobra in the Barn” and “The Hemi in the Barn.” It is the piecemeal chronicle of 40 classic motorcycle finds across the United States, Britain, Vietnam, Australia – even Russia. These point-by-point journeys through hunts and “barn finds” rev the imagination and the imagined bank account, because a sleuthing session might uncover an actual Vincent Black Shadow, one of the holy grails of motorcycling, with a street value approaching $100,000.

Chapter one describes this eponymous Vincent in the barn (or more accurately, a shed). Stored in a Southern California shed in 1960 by a reclusive machinist, the 1952 Series C Touring Rapide moldered under a blanket of cardboard and plywood for decades. Tipped off by a neighbor, Lanny Hyde spent six years trying to buy it, and was finally successful. Fully restored, it now occupies pride of place in his home.

This Vincent tale is just one of several dealing with the historic bike. Another describes the odd dealings of George Disteel of the San Francisco Bay area, who in the 1960s and ‘70s bought and secreted every Vincent he could find after his only son died while driving one.

Of more historical importance is the tale of the Brough SS100 upon which British military officer and writer T.E. Lawrence met his end in 1935. Cotter spins the tale of the bike’s fateful days, its life with a small succession of keepers, and its private ownership today.

Aside from Brit bikes, Cotter’s book focuses heavily on the discovery of old American V-twins such as Indians and Harley-Davidsons, but there’s also a sprinkling of Japanese bikes – including a couple of rare factory road racers. Inarguably the most dramatic story describes the daring investigations of Dick Fritz and friends into Russia in search of a rare Mercedes 540K staff car, reputedly hidden after World War II. Adrift in a wildly foreign country, surrounded by intrigue, distrust and danger, they also spent days searching for war-era motorcycles. Through crawl spaces into basements, and up staircases into apartments, they found various BMWs, Harleys and Indians worth acquiring, and while landing the precious Mercedes acquisition required more effort, at least the bikes paid for their trip.

Although the book carries Cotter’s byline, several other writers make appearances so it does not read like a cohesive, evolving thread. Rather, it’s a set of independent vignettes – generally well written, but also occasionally forgetful, sometimes tripping in copy editing, or offering minor detail when there’s no real meat.

Still the effort is heartfelt and pure, and the reader truly shares close details of the hunt as it’s experienced by some of the most successful motorbike archeologists. Even if we were lucky enough to know these individuals, it would take a long evening by the fire to learn the rich details of discovery chronicled in Cotter’s book, and for that we owe him a debt of thanks.

Thus, from brave Russian exploits, to a rare Indian racer pulled from a Rhode Island shed, to the discovery of ordinary Yamaha and Honda road bikes, “The Vincent in the Barn” gives encouragement to motorcycle romantics who might otherwise seek treasure only in eBay-land.

With millions of motorcycles either built in America or imported over the last century, there surely must be a forgotten relic in a barn, garage, carport or field near you. They’re definitely out there. And as those who like to fish know, at least 90 percent of the fun is in the scheming and stalking – and the camaraderie that goes with it.

John L. Stein is the former road test editor of "Cycle"and currently a contributing editor of "Motorcyclist."

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