Uncle Johnnie and the bike in a box

This is a story of questionable family heritage, grime and time and grit-encrusted motorcycle bits from the Big Band era, and one Renaissance man of sorts, a modern mix of urban adventurer and enlightened rogue. At one time or another he ran a machine shop, had a new convertible in the street, a Harley chained to his Queens, NY porch and a cigarette boat in Flushing Bay, or more accurately, under it. He skied, scuba dived, wrenched, built a wooden boat from the mud up, owned a ramshackle boarding house and later small apartment houses. He was the direct descendant of New York City bootleggers and other characters colorful and strange. But mainly, at least to me, he was the cool guy who rode motorcycles; big, bad, chuffing, puffing, skirt turning, bad-to-the-bone post-war Harleys. He was Uncle Johnnie, my own personal action hero in leather and rolled up Levis, and right out of a graphic novel.

1954 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide, of the type Uncle Johnnie wowed me with as a youngster.

It was a cool summer’s morning at my grandfather’s home when Johnnie came roaring up on his 1950s-something Hydra Glide, parked it under the kitchen window on the side of the house, went inside and made a pot of coffee. It sounded like furious thunder had descended out of a clear blue sky. With reckless curiosity, I crept outside, slid over to the window and was absolutely bedazzled by the sight of my disbelieving eyes. It was a chrome god, slouching cool and mean on its kickstand, smelling of the sweet, leaky aroma of oil and leaded gasoline. I was four. This was better than dinosaurs, dragons, Crusader Rabbit and Superman rolled together in one big steel, toothy, fire breathing monster. Then my father suddenly popped his head out that window and screamed, “Get away from that thing before it falls on you!” I now knew my destiny.

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It was almost another 20 years before I could see my fate unfold. As with seemingly everything I’ve done, I went out of my way to find the hard way. At a street fair in NYC, I spotted a Moto Morini scooter, a moped really, with a horizontal tank that make it look like a little shrunken motorcycle. It was mini-tough, no license or common sense needed. It cost $400, a small price to pay to enter the rarefied world of motorcycling, or in this case, mopeding. I bought two helmets, knowing full well chicks love a bad boy. I was off to conquer Manhattan at 40 mph, top speed.

It was the little bike that could. Rode it around the city, sometimes two-up, making it pull and strain to hit 30 mph. But in Manhattan where traffic moves at about 18 mph, the thing felt like a little dart, or would have if it had any acceleration. I even took it out to Long Island to show my mom.

Moto Morini Corsario Z, similar to the one my mom was less than impressed with.

“Hey, Mom, come take a look at my new motorcycle!” I yelled from the nicely flowered front walk.

The door opened, she squinted, “Where is it?”

Mom was near-sighted. “It’s right here, right next to me, can’t you see it? Come closer.”

Mom moved down the front steps. “Oh, I see it now. Oh my, how cute.”

“Cute?? Ahh, Mom, motorcycles aren’t cute, they’re rough and tough and…”

“If you say so, dear,” said Mom, in her kind way of speaking.

I rode that Moto Morini around for about a year. Its two-stroke engine needed careful measuring of oil and gas, which I always got wrong. I sold it, but knew it wouldn’t be long until I got into the wind again, or if you’re on the Morini, a gentle breeze.

BRAVERY OR MADNESS

With the invaluable help of Bob “Valarie” Gibbs, my old college roommate, motorcycle mentor and dear friend, and the continued inspiration of Uncle John, Biker Patriot, I found a Honda CB 650. Many people sell their bikes during the winter if their state freezes solid for months at a time. Too hard to envision pleasant bucolic rides when the wind-chill is below zero.

Of course, if you can brave the winter wastelands, you can get a good price. I did, thanks to Valarie, nee Bob. I didn’t yet have a motorcycle license, so he volunteered to come from New Jersey to Long Island in mid-freaking-frozen January to pick up the bike, ride it back over the Hudson and garage it until the thaw. It was, like most of my carefully thought out plans, insane. But Bob kindly obliged, really my first lesson in what bikers will do for one another. It was almost his last lesson. On the way out of town, Bob nearly got blown off the Throgs Neck Bridge by howling winter winds. I can only describe this valorous feat to stay upright, on pavement, and not splashing into Long Island Sound as nothing less than biblical.

1979 Honda CB650, of the type Mom was a bit more impressed with.

Spring eventually came, Bob taught me how to ride the 650, and off to big, bad NYC I rode. Some people thought a motorcycle in the city was madness, and riding in the city while still learning how to ride, something only an institutionalized escapee would do. But I had a destiny, so I was safe. Soon, I was making another trip to Mom’s.

“Hey, Ma, come take a look at my new bike!” I yelled from the flowery front walk.

The door opened, out came Mom in her usual comfy house dress and thick glasses. She stood for a moment, then exclaimed, “Thank God, you got a real motorcycle! Yes, that other little thing was cute, but you looked like a sitting duck on it. This is much better.”

And just like that, Mom turned, went back inside and back to her book. She was always reading books. I think true biker blood ran through Mom’s veins, and now through mine. She respected my choices, even if they may have scared her. She would never show it, believing people should be free to fully live their lives, even if it kills them. That stoicism always stayed with me.

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I survived NYC mostly intact. Other bikes came and went—the underrated fireball of a bike, the Suzuki Madura; a Kawasaki GPZ 750 I couldn’t kill no matter how I tried; a fussy Sportster 1200, a couple of calamitous Shovelheads, a Softail, another Softail after the death of said first Softail; the prototype Victory Vampire, a project Honda cafe racer…and then I got the call.

Deep within the darkest bowels of his many basements, lay a rare treasure, if you could unearth it: a 1938 Indian Four. It had been sitting there gathering dust and time since the late 1950s or early 60s. It was my grandfathers ride, then my Uncle Johnnie’s, now mine, if I could get it from NYC to my new home in Arizona. The call went like this:

“Hello, Nephew…been rummaging around, cleaning out junk…got a 1938 Indian Four and a spare motor, ’37,…it’s all in pieces but it’s 99% there…do you want it?”

LEG BREAKERS

Junk?? More like precious moto artifacts. Hell yeah, I wanted it, even though in the moment I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was in a lot of pieces, teeny tiny, gritty, grimy pieces, in wooden crates and cardboard boxes and a few paper bags. But it would be mine, this deconstructed and discombobulated priceless piece of family history.

“Your grandfather rode this bike, would take his sister to her job on Wall Street,” Uncle Johnnie informed me. “She was in a dress so, of course, she would ride sidesaddle. Then I rode the bike, until I crashed it. You know, they used to call these inline Fours ‘leg breakers’ because the engine had so much torque that when you hit the throttle hard the bike would move sideways. But you get used to it, sorta. I started to fix it, then decided on a complete teardown and rebuild. Then just sort of forgot about it with everything else going on.”

“Um, can you rebuild it now,” I asked, “you know, before you give it to me?”

“I could,” he said, “but it would be more fun if I didn’t.”

“Fun for who?” I wondered. “For me,” replied Uncle Johnnie.

The 1938 Indian Four, as it might have looked at one time. Not by the time I received it, however. Photo by Mecum.


Getting it to Northern Arizona was the first challenge. A nearby builder buddy told me he was delivering a motorcycle to a customer in Detroit, said he could, as a favor to me and if I’d consider him for the restoration job, just make a quick swing over to NY and pick up the Indian, no charge. I told him it was a “quick swing” of some 630 miles, each way. He was unbothered.

Some two weeks later the Indian arrived, and it looked every bit of the 99% Uncle Johnnie said was there, everywhere. I surveyed the heap and thought, “My Lord, what have I done?” It looked like an impossible, moving bits jigsaw puzzle where you couldn’t tell the crusty parts from the plain dirt, albeit vintage dirt. I think I even saw a mushroom growing out of a cylinder pot. My excitement drained from me like watery oil from a nearly three-quarter-century-old motor that hadn’t run since the Eisenhower administration. Happiness turned to dread.

Then I was handed the bill. The charge for this “free” transport was $1200, including a trailer hitch, which I kept. The fee was for gas and tolls, bother and such, as well as a kind of hazardous mission surcharge:

“Your uncle took us deep into the city, man, into some very scary neighborhoods,” said the tough Harley mechanic from Detroit. I’ll have to remind him what a bad man he is in his mid-70s.

BASKETCASE BIKE

We unloaded the baskets and bags into the builder’s garage, including the spare ’37 motor, which slipped through our hands and hit the ground with a thud and a crack. The tranny case now had a hairline crack, diminishing its value by hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Oops.

The builder threw together a rolling chassis of sorts—frame, tank, wheels, maybe a fender or two just hung together, basically a loose look of what it could be. I began to feel a little better. Rising up from the mushrooms and mud, the 1938 Indian Four of my ancestors could live again. I was filling with excitement, which usually means good sense was draining away.

Even as the restoration math started to tick off in my head, it was easy to imagine rolling down an otherworldly Arizona backroad on the old thing, resurrecting moto royalty and bringing glory to the family name. Then the builder tapped me on the shoulder:

“Um, sorry to interrupt your daydream, but when do you want to get to work on the bike?” The bike?? Didn’t he know this was not just a bike, it was my heritage, soaked in lovely leaded fuel and surely some blood, scraped knuckles, sweat and a few tears. My family DNA is literally part of this noble moto machine. Bike? Did he just say bike??

“Oh, and this might be a good time to tell you, I never worked on any of these bikes before.”

The dream that might have been. Photo by Mecum.

That was it. It requires a particular set of skills to rebuild one of these super rare, fussy models. If not done just right, you might find your transmission blowing apart under your legs. Only a few builders across the nation were bona fide Indian restorers; my guy was not bona fide.

Time for a decision. The nearest expert was a state away. Should I pack everything up and ship it out of town to a remote but bona fide guy, right along with my weekly paychecks, or should I do something else, something I think would have Grandpa spinning in his grave at about 5000 rpm?

Sad to say, the course was clear. And so was the arithmetic. I could spend some $20 to $30k on the project and hope the build is perfect, or I could sell the parts and the headaches already built into them. After a long talk with Uncle John explaining how much I wanted to honor the family ride and get it back on the road, the financial risk was too much. I was hoping for some sage advice, or even forgiveness, but got neither. Regretfully, I sold the ’38 Four. Was it a mistake?

Hell, yeah.

J. Joshua Placa

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1 Comment

  1. david visi

    Hey Josh,

    That was a great read! Excellent history. I laughed out loud a couple of times, especially at the bit: “I now knew my destiny.” I can picture it. I had one of those moments too, within seconds of getting off my first ride. And decades later, still riding.

    Ride on brother. Ride on.

    The Rapid Goose

    Reply

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