Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Biker left legacy of love for vintage cycles

James Johnson, killed in the crash of one of his vintage motorcycles on a California highway, is the subject of a concise but moving obituary on the excellent The Vintagent blog. The blog invites motorcyclists to consider whether a few concessions to "period incorrect" safety measures might have saved his life.

Johnson's own gentlemanly posts about his 1947 Model G Royal Enfield were seen on the Bullet-Mania Yahoo discussion board, where I found the picture Johnson posted of himself and his Model G.

Perhaps his final sacrifice to authenticity was too great. But there is no question that his love of old motorcycles left us all a gift. Here is a 2007 posting of his on Bullet-Mania, in which he discusses the "sickness" of falling in love with vintage machines:

"First we tell ourself that this one more bike is all we need to make us content. Ah the oldies, next thing you know you will be making the step into '30s bikes because your '40s designs are not strange enough. But you soon realize that the '30s bikes and '40s bikes are nearly the same, only having a war between them. So now it's the '20s bikes. You start off late in the '20s and think 'this is just a little more primitive than my '30s bikes.' So now it is early '20s bikes, which share more with cycles than motorcycles. This will satisfy you for a bit as putting these together is hard work due to no parts support but once you get them running you want to go out with the pre-'16 boys. The sickness just gets worse and worse. I have seen it and am afflicted as well. One day you will find yourself waking up and going out to the shed to start up your own little piece of useless transport lacking the refinement of the '60s designs. But it feels good anyways."

He signed himself: "James -- a very very very sick man"


  1. This story is nothing short of tragic, on several levels.

    Like James, I too have a keep eye for the "authentic" often seeking out NOS parts for various scooter / VW restoration projects even knowing that modern replacements are arguably better & safer - dual-circuit master cylinders vs. single, radial tires vs, "correct" bias-ply, laminated windshield glass, etc.
    In motorcycles & scooters however, the tires is the one and single area where I make a concession to the modern. The safety and ride characteristics of modern tires simply cannot be ignored. It's saved my bacon on a number of occasions - any friends still running "classic" rubber have wound up in the weeds.
    I am even guilty of wearing the same model Davida Classic lid and aviator goggles that James sports. (look no further than REunion pictures of years past for the evidence) but I have made a step towards moderninity in a small way - I still wear a Davida lid for "show" weekends, but the 3/4 DOT/MOT approved version.

    My point is that sometimes we can sacrifice that 100% authenticness, but still very much "look the part". I don't think anyone out there in their right minds would begrudge a man for putting modern rubber on a bike that is actually *ridden*!

    And on a personal note - If one could choose for themselves the "perfect last day on Earth" - I don't think I could do much better than a vintage motorcycle ride up the beautiful California coast from San Francisco, with my wife and a few best friends. We should all be so lucky.
    I lost my father a few years back under similar circumstances, and I take some solice in the fact that his last day was spent riding his bike, with the love of his life behind, spending the day at Mardi Gras with friends, riding in the parade and enjoying freakishly nice weather that day.

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful, complete and ultimately very personal comment. You really said it all.


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