Auctions

THE SECRET KINGDOM OF ‘OILY RAG’

This original-paint Harley Davidson racer from 1921 was offered for a cool $230k at the recent Las Vegas motorcycle auctions…

You are about to change your mind forever about ‘rusty old junk’.  It’s a mystery why vehicle collectors are so late to a party begun a century ago, but the door is still open to us, so here’s your invitation.  Guarding the entry of the grand manse of Preservation Hall stand white-gloved Conservators, fussing over the furniture and barking ‘don’t touch!’  These tight-arsed, white-glove museum boys aren’t Cerberus at the gates, they’re just yapping lapdogs, intent on proving they’re the only real guardians of History.  They are the worst possible greeters, but they’ve volunteered, so we ignore them.  On entering the Hall, you’ll get a mixed message for actually driving your slightly rusty Aston DB2 or period-bobbed ‘30s Harley; the general feeling of unwelcome must be endured; it’s just a rite of passage.

Who’s already inside Preservation Hall is everyone who ever paid real money for a physical object; a book, a painting, a sculpture, a chair, jewelry, religious relics, cultural treasures; in fact, every kind of collector, other than those who prefer wheels on their artwork.  We are the last to enter the building.  A few of our brethren brazenly demanded entry decades ago, but they are lone and wild, the Baptismal Johns of our nascent movement; their solitary, eccentric stance to ‘leave well enough alone’, and insist on driving a funky old coupé every day, with its oxidized paint, spotty nickel, and tatty upholstery, was a pioneering cry in the wilderness in what will shortly be agreed was an act of great wisdom.  These oddballs, the ones with a rope belt and a time-warp Rolls in the barn during the 1950s/60s/70s, these are our pioneers, and someday their hirsute visages should be painted on the walls of the shrine to Our Lady of Wheels, for they Knew, and were right.

A tale of two Pierces: the left original, the right beautifully restored. Shiny machine unsold at $43k, oily original sold for $120k… prick up your ears!

‘Noli Mi Tangere’ is already tattooed on the arms of furniture collectors and art dealers, they were among the first to understand that the only defense against fakery and simulacra is to leave the damn thing alone.  While not proof against clever forgers, their century-old credo against Restoration (or worse, re-invention) had a strictly commercial origin; too many restored-to-new 18th century Boulle credenzas were, in fact, simply brand new.  Once burned, twice shy, and lovers of fine objects soon retreated to the near-safe haven of Untouched Stuff, where they discovered; 1.patina is a lovely thing, and 2.restorations never look quite right. As time progresses and objects from the Industrial Era grow in stature, it’s not simply Fra Angelico’s squirrel-hair brushstrokes which fascinate the astute, it’s also the pinstriping technique of a half-drunk Bavarian who finished Art Deco BMW petrol tanks. Both are a record from an era passed, an irreplaceable moment of aesthetic endeavor, both are worthy of preservation.  As surely as a piece of Marie Antoinette’s jewelry is welcome in the same museum which holds a Renoir or an Yves St Laurent ‘Le Smoking’, so is an unrestored Lancia Zagato.  As surely as no collector wants a dimestore tiara, or a repainted Van Gogh, or a Zara runway knockoff, there’s no reason for a restored vehicle to hold a higher place in the moto-Pantheon than an original-paint beauty.  It makes no sense at all in fact, unless we’re celebrating talented restoration shops.  But we don’t; we are in theory lauding the creations of a particular factory and era, why on earth do we award Concours prizes to vehicles which might well be made of plastic under their shiny paint jobs?   As collectors in every other field know well, shiny hides the lie.

Which is not to say that a perfectly restored-from-a-wreck ’72 Porsche Targa isn’t a good thing; in fact, it’s a wonderful thing, as you can hammer that pup till the connecting rods come up for air, then replace the motor with a new one, and it won’t matter a bit, because it’s not original anyway.  Play hard with the ones which can’t ever be original again, I encourage you, I beg you in fact.  ‘Use them as the maker intended’ is my motto, and I live by it.  But if you’re a lucky sod with a low-mileage, lovely ‘56 Triumph TR6B Trophybird, yes ride it and maintain it, but try not to throw it down the road; it could buy your daughter a house someday, and better, could show some 23rd century engineer what England in the 1950s was really all about.

This 1923 racing Douglas in running condition was an incredible relic of the Brooklands age, one of two surviving of 750cc, and in fantastic Oily Rag condition

Oily Rag’ is a magazine dedicated to the unrestored, and more importantly, the original which needs no improvement, the utilitarian (or simply joyous) which planned obsolescence didn’t plan for.  It’s home base for those who’ve discovered that an 1850s photographic technique makes amazing images, a 1930s car is incredibly stylish, and your dad’s old tools are much better than ‘good enough’. Oily Rag is written for anyone who understands that disposability isn’t a virtue in our finite world, that we might need a rethink on throwing out slightly used stuff, and that ‘restoring’ perfectly good old utilitarian objects may someday be seen as much a crime as overpainting an 19th century Italian fresco.  At the core, Oily Rag is a state of mind, and we invite you to drink deep from our Kool-aid punchbowl.

- Paul d’Orléans 

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Auctions, Family Tradition, Motorcycles Leave a comment

SPEEDWAY INTO ADVERSITY

My father was born in 1921 and died just four years ago. It was he who fostered my lifelong love of cars and motorcycles. Pre-War, he’d been apprenticed to The Caterham Motor Company in Oxted Surrey and had been heavily involved in pre-war motorcycle grass track racing at places like Brands Hatch and Layhams Farm. He was a keen supporter of New Cross Speedway too and I believe had a ‘try out’ just as WW2 intervened and put paid to such nonsense. He’d already become a sort of ‘sponsored’ ‘tracker for a colleague named Reg Marsh who supplied a dope burning 350 JAP engined New Imperial…Reg emigrated to NZ after the war and set up a motorcycle business there.

The arrival of the second world war saw him signed up as a mechanic for the RAF in North Africa,  working on whatever needed fixing, from Spitfires and Hurricanes to transport planes. In order to give the men some constructive R’ n’ R the armed services had initiated an inter-services speedway league which followed the allies through Sicily and into mainland Italy. Machinery was very much of the home-brewed variety. There was no shortage of engineering know-how and equipment in the REME, RAF and RN workshops, and as you can see from the shots, rough approximations were made as to the look of the speedway machines back in blighty…the old man specialised in the tiny petrol tank variety! The speedway irons started life as trashed dispatch riders bikes. All parts were scrounged and they were generally run on ‘liberated’ aviation spirit.  The ultimate tool required an ohv engine of course, but with so many sidevalve hacks knocking about this called for much creativity. Accounts of Wermacht ohv BMW heads being grafted onto Brit crankcases via the expedient of a barrel turned from the bronze of a salvaged ship’s propellor were recorded. Both wheels often carried brake drums but with no internals. Competition was fierce and it wasn’t unknown for teams to recruit ‘ringers’ like speedway professional, Split Waterman to boost their chances of success.
 
As you can see, the machines had the ‘Oily Rag’ look built -in.Dad never lost the touch either; when I was a young teenager and a group of us rode field bikes at a friend’s farm, the old man turned up one day and put us all to shame by grabbing an old 350 Velo and put it into a continuous slide with consummate ease. My mother discouraged such activities,  but when he finally retired from aviation in 1980 he built himself a very quick Vincent Rapide from the proverbial ‘box of bits’, assuring her that it was just an old machine and very slow!

- Jon Dudley

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Family Tradition, Hand Made, Motorcycles Leave a comment

A HAND-MADE WORLD

Jeff Epps and his ca. 1956 Ford F350 flatbed truck…

We’d been looking for a suitable Desert Racer, planning on some fun in the Southwest in two weeks.  I already have my original-paint ’73 Triumph TR5T ‘Adventurer’ purchased at the Bonhams Las Vegas auction last January, part of the du Pont family estate motorcycle liquidation.  Conrad wanted something similar, as he’s planning to spend a little time in Cali next year.  Whole container loads of Britbikes have been poached from California garages since the 1980s, and we don’t see many pre-unit Triumphs or much from the 50s and earlier, but ‘overlooked’ machinery is still to be found, in abundance, and fairly cheap.  BSA A65s, B50Ts, Triumphs post 1970, etc…derided in their day, but with modern eyes, well designed and fun machines.  Since we’re not seeking high performance or drag-racing with Kawasakis at every stoplight,  such motorcycles provide spirited riding indefinitely, and are easy to maintain, with parts readily available.

Conrad Leach seals the deal with Jeff Epps on the '71 Triumph TR6R

A scan of Craigslist revealed a likely candidate; a ’71 Triumph TR6R ‘Trophy’ with high pipes, looking complete and in decent shape, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains, in Sonora, CA.  I have family in Sonora, the 2.5 hour drive isn’t daunting, and I had a feeling it would be worth the trip, as the area is full of ‘mountain men’ and eccentrics.  An empty van, a full tank, a few tie-straps, and a wad of cash; we were en route.

A neighbor's 1963 Willys Wagon, which has been sitting a long time, but is rust-free. We are inquiring!

Jeff, the vendor, was shocked that Tom Tom brought us right to his door, on the dirt road with no signs, in the hamlet of Soulsbyville.  His compound, one /fifth acre of dry dirt, a few trees, two wooden shacks, and a couple of old trucks, was clean-swept, with neatly stacked cordwood, a pile of which formed a tall curved wall keeping his home from view of the world.  Clearly, the man is organized and tidy, even if the grounds are humble dirt and wood.  Sonora is dry, with Scrub Pines and Manzanita dominating the foliage, and little grass; I knew the Triumph would be rust-free, at least.

The single male is prone to keeping a motorcycle in the kitchen…

Jeff’s home is entirely hand-built of plywood and studs, and he keeps a BSA Victor in his kitchen – it’s his pride and joy, shiny as a new apple.  A stack of Classic Motorcycle magazines decorated his den table…clearly he’s an old biker, and a real enthusiast.  The Triumph looked good, we did the deal, and shot some Wet Plates (our official ‘oily rag’ photo technique) of the man and his world.

Wet Plate photo of Jeff Epps, with BSA flat-cap, and his 'new', 1960s, Ford truck…

He’s thinking of selling up the whole place – yours for $55,000 – and moving higher up the mountain, so he can ski daily in winter. Sonora is slowly changing, with miles of anonymous strip malls and chain stores, looking like every other boring suburb on the planet.  We’ll have to drive a little farther to find the likes of Jeff in the future…

Wet Plate image of Jeff and his Ford F350; he's built a wooden pent-roof house on the flatbed, for toting snowmobiles and cordwood…

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THOUGHTS ON ‘OILY RAG’ PHOTOGRAPHY

 

Effects of chemistry and light which cannot be duplicated – or predicted – are part of the charm of 'obsolete' photo processes

Note; this article originally appeared in an abbreviated form in Men’s File magazine.

Mo-Ti, a tool-handy Chinese philosopher espousing universal love, constructed the first pinhole camera obscura around 400 BC, naming it the ‘locked treasure room’ (soding sang bao shu). Aristotle and Euclid also played with light in boxes, but it took another fifteen hundred years for Persian scientist Alhazen to accurately describe the geometries and properties of light, in 1021.  Eight hundred years later, an inveterate French tinkerer fabulously self-named Nicéphore Niepce, managed to fix an image from a lensed camera obscura onto paper. After ruining that first print in 1822 (while attempting its duplication), by 1825 he had his ‘heliograph’ sorted, with only 8 hours exposure time required per image.  Capturing the souls of people had to wait until after Niepce died, when his business partner Louis Daguerre perfected one of their experimental processes, using fumes of iodine and bromine on polished silver, with exposure reduced to seconds.  Humbly-named, Daguerreotypes were the first commercially successful photographic process, and exploded in popularity.  You can still make a Daguerreotype today, with a little low-tech equipment and a few very toxic chemicals; the resultant image is elusive – the surface is a mirror, with only ‘whites’ captured on the light-altered silver, the ‘darks’ supplied by reflections of the viewer’s clothing, and shadows.  Of all photographic processes, a Daguerreotype requires viewer participation; the magic mirror only works with an audience.

Sculptor Jeff Decker just outside Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Frederick Scott Archer rendered polished silver plates ‘obsolete’ in the 1850s by suspending silver nitrate in a sticky liquid (collodion, the first ‘plastic’), which was poured over a glass or metal plate, exposed to light, and fixed by salts.  ‘Wet Plate’ photography became the new standard, producing very fine images, the only disadvantage being collodion’s need to remain wet while in process – if the plate dried, no image – thus photos were taken near a darkroom for immediate development, or mobile darkrooms hauled to sites of interest, like Civil War battlefields, where cannonballs and bodies were typically re-arranged for proper effect.  You can still make a Wet Plate photo today, with a few chemicals and a box camera; as the silver nitrate solution is sensitive only to the blue end of the spectrum (much of it invisible Ultraviolet), the resultant image is unpredictable – we literally cannot see what will be captured.  Thus Wet Plate sees something we cannot, which is its mystery, and its charm, especially in portraiture, where natural variations of skin pigmentation enhanced by UV add ‘character’, much loved by men, and dreaded by women.

Philanthropist and eugenicist George Eastman perfected a method of fixing silver nitrates into a flexible, if flammable, nitrocellulose film, and sold a cheap box camera to hold that film in rolls, and by the 1890s his Kodaks had rendered every other type of photography obsolete. Eastman’s invention was the standard for 100 years, until digital cameras appeared in the 1990s, and film became obsolete. You can still take photos with film; it has beautiful qualities – Polaroids too. Each successive iteration of photography, from those first, day-long sun engravings on bitumen-coated stone slabs in the 1820s, thru the latest variable-focus light field cameras (coming shortly to your nearest cheapo electronics megastore), renders the previous method completely obsolete; this is Progress.  No?

Publisher Buzz Kanter and his hot Harley JDH; Burns, Oregon

But the notion of Progress is itself obsolete; we are inundated by a growing pile of ‘improved’ stuff, and question its contribution to our quality of life; is our 20 megapixel iPhone camera making us happy?  Old photo techniques require a bit of skill, time, and practice, all qualities our elders from Confucius to Ben Franklin have told us develop our souls.  Likewise for old vehicles; we love a vintage motorcycle partly because it needs us, and rewards our effort with an almost Buddhist experience; simply enjoying the ride, having let go the expectation of being fastest or best.  Same with an old car, or hand tools, or words written on paper, all consigned to the scrap bin by the New, yet, when the ceaseless chatter of Capital’s media is brushed aside, all these things are perfectly reasonable options for using as their makers intended.  Because they require our attention, they cannot be taken for granted, and because you have ignored the demands of Capital on your process of choice, you have ceased for that moment to be a credit card automaton, and have become more human, understanding better the enormous range of choices within your grasp; the experience of such freedoms may yet become a habit.  For what is a man, if not the agent of his own destiny?

This is perhaps the first Wet Plate/collodion photograph of a moving motorcycle, taken outside Burns, Oregon, with a 1960s era Speed Graphic 4"x5" camera; as the ASA of silvered collodion is about '1' (as opposed to 100-400ASA typical of roll film), exposure tend to be 1 second in full sun. That's a long time to catch something moving without a massive flash array…but I'll keep experimenting. It's possible!

- Text; Paul d’Orléans.  Photos; Paul d’Orléans and Susan McLaughlin

 

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NOT A CAR, BUT NEAR

The idea of owning something extraordinary in the field of two-wheeled transport had long been nagging. From the deeper and dustier recesses of my brain, memories a strange device haunted me. As a small boy, one of my favourite excursions was to the intriguing motorcycle collection ofMr Spearman, toy shop proprietor and sometime garagiste in Bishop’s Stortford.  Amongst the many treasures within said garage lurked a Ner-A-Car. In its heyday, the Ner-A-Car was one of several strange two-wheelers produced commercially as an answer to the believed desire for a ‘civilised motorcycle’, and it must rank as one of the strangest.

Specifications are remarkably futuristic – no frame, merely a pressed steel chassis, bulbous front mudguard, hub-centre steering and friction drive, oh, and two individually operated drum brakes on the rear wheel only. It worked! -  provided you weren’t a speed demon or didn’t mind young lads laughing as they whizzed past on their pushbikes.

Whilst being wheeled around, it feels like a jelly with a hinge in the middle, but once ridden it all comes together as one of the most stable and beautifully handling machines I’ve ever ridden. Carl Neracher designed and built these motorcycles in Syracuse, New York, and licensed Messrs. Sheffield Simplex of Kingston-on-Thames to manufacture them in the U.K. Mine is one of the latter and of 1922 vintage. I was tipped off as to its whereabouts (an old fish packing shed in Essex) by a fellow enthusiast.

When I bought it the owner generously gave me the rare square format handbook too – full of useful hints and tips – quite necessary when a good decoke, amongst other vital maintenance, was recommended every 300 miles or so. Advertised widely, Ner-A-Cars found favour with district nurses and the clergy, probably due not only to the cassock-protection they offered from road filth, but also to their parsimonious running costs. One unlikely but satisfied owner was the celebrated crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers. My machine, when purchased, had somewhere lost its friction drive and two-stroke engine to a side-valve motor and conventional gearbox; for me it also lost much of its individuality.

 The Ner-A-Car in its purest form is what I now have – dual acetylene and electric lighting, underpowered and friction-driven, the thing is a hoot! I have no desire to restore or even clean it. It faithfully passes an MOT examination every year and runs at breathtaking speeds of some 30mph on its beaded edge tyres.

- Jon Dudley

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