A submarining Commando, somewhere under the English Channel…

What can you learn from taking your father’s 1972 Norton Commando on a summer Grand Tour?  That is, 800 miles with little preparation, on the bike your father bought new, never restored or even had the crankcases apart? As I discovered last month on a journey-cut-short to the South of France, the answer is ‘quite a lot’.

I never really ‘got’ the Commando when I was young: the Featherbed models hold all the mystique, being the basis for the all-conquering Manx, with the many great riders who chose it as their steed. As I grew up, so did my tastes, and I started to understand the beauty of the Commando…especially the gently modified example residing in the family garage. With the chipped original paint, the original tank (scratched, and missing most of the Norton decals), the S-type seat fitted soon after purchase when the standard Roadster item failed (but which is now looking quite the worse for wear with a split and rogue piping), the shortened Vincent bars which my father fitted along the way, the Barleycorn rearsets that arrived recently (already with scars from a drop), and the John Tickle headlamp brackets with pin holes in the chrome… it was nearly the perfect road machine, in my eyes. Maybe romanticism, but it really spoke to me.

Who would leave sunny skies for certain rain?

I’ve already written about how much I loved my first ride on the machine, and I was determined to further the experience with a Summer Grand Tour, eschewing the easy option of my modern BMW. Before I left, with 150 miles of test-riding and a new tire, I felt confident enough to make the most difficult step of my journey: pushing the Norton out of the garage and riding it down the road. Lao Tzu really knew what he was talking about with “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

So off I went, blazing into the warm night to catch the 1am Eurotunnel, chest on the tank, stopping near Brands Hatch for fuel, keeping an eye on the tacho needle, keeping it hovering at 4K, digging the warm glow from the instruments and reflected light on the front mudguard (and how warm is that filament light, versus the modern halogens of passing cars).  Once on the train, I managed a quick doze under the bike, with no oil loss ruining my helmet hair, the heat from the engine keeping me cosy, and then it was chest on the tank again, through the cold and rain of Northern France. At my breakfast stop, a gentleman confronted me: “Is that your Norton outside?” On admitting that it was, he sat for half an hour discussing the virtues of British machines, owning a Velocette Venom himself. It always astounds me how classic machine ownership gives admission to the friendliest club in the world.

When France turns sunny…

As the sun broke through the clouds and chased me from Rouen to Le Mans, a Mercedes estate pulled up alongside at 100kph, the father pointing and smiling with the children in the back waving and taking photos. It really brings comfort to my soul that the beauty of a motorcycle transcends generations.

But all good things must come to an end, and I soon learned the truth in the adage Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. At the péage north of Tours my ticket would not go into the machine and blew out on to the ground.  As I bent down to pick it up, I noticed the primary chaincase was covered in oil; the bike was not feeling good. I had felt a loss of compression when I pulled away from the previous aire, but, resolving that I could do nothing about it, tried to press on, planning to do a repair when I arrived in Biarritz.

The very Biarritz which drew Nicolas southward…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. On reflection, I should have got off the autoroute and called for recovery as soon as the engine started to turn sour. In the end, I limped the Commando to the next junction – possibly the most nerve wracking 8km of my life – with the engine sounding very sad and losing power all the time. I phoned my insurers, slept in a field under the sun for 2 hours and woke to a very agreeable chap in an ancient Renault Nevada with a trailer on the back who towed my bike to his garage. All fairly straightforward; my flight home was booked by my insurers the next day and the Norton should be back home later this week.

So in a roundabout way I’ve got to my point: what did I learn? Firstly, the more you use older machines, the more you learn about them and the more issues you iron out. Your conversation with the machine develops and you begin to understand what’s going on beneath you, when something is going wrong, and fix it before disaster strikes. This winter, I’ll rebuild the engine to a better standard than ever departed Woolwich. Then, with confidence in all major components, and preserving the patina on the machine, I should, finally, really, have my perfect road machine.

Don't worry young Nick; they did this when new, too…

Secondly, the adventure really does start with the first step. Having a pipe dream for THE epic trip with spreadsheets, costings and route plans is all well and good, but actions speak louder than words: actually getting on the road may be the hardest part, but it is also the most liberating. Although my trip was a failure in some ways, I also had a wonderful adventure with some great stories to tell; I felt mentally and physically tested…something not true of sitting at a desk. If more riders realized insurance breakdown cover provides a safety net, maybe more would make the leap from dreaming, to tires on tarmac.

- Nicholas Biebuyck

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The search for a gypsy caravan had certain aesthetic parameters; originality and lack of restoration were the main ones, yet it still needed to be in a serviceable and usable condition. It was to be used as an exterior spare bedroom to our house, plus as an escape pod for anyone needing time alone.

After much searching and finding over-restored freshly painted vans, sold as perfect examples but in reality, over-restored horrors in garish fresh colours, a proper candidate was found. This 1920 gypsy bow top caravan had rust on the axles, slightly wonky wooden wheels in need of repair, and the faded glory of flaking paint and brittle wood. Inside, all was originality and atmosphere. Although the stove was missing a part, the pull-out bed walls and roof, spoke of a life in times gone by. They worked, the van rolled, now all that’s missing is a pony to pull it.

The vendor asked if I would like it repainted in the traditional colours and decorations….no thank you. Well how about repainting the wheels and pinstriping them? No thank you!  I really do like the look as it is, so please leave them alone.

It has clearly been in a gypsy family for a long time. Sometime in the past the traditional paint has been touched up and parts painted to keep the wood sound. Now it’s flaking and faded and therefore looks fabulous.

The one item that slightly sticks in my throat is that the canvas has HAD to be replaced on the bow top – it was a necessity that even I had to concede…the old canvas was rotten, full of holes and beyond repair. To keep the van in its ‘oily rag’ condition, water had to be stopped from getting into the interior. Therefore, new Bright Green british canvas was used. Not ideal because it’s really BRIGHT GREEN. The green canvas will fade down if I leave the caravan to the elements over the winter. Meanwhile we sit and marvel at the original beauty and craftsmanship of the thing, struggling to come to terms that once, this was home for a (possibly) quite large Gypsy family. With a bit of imagination, you can still hear the chatter and laughter of the children and the clucking of the hens…

- Adrian Cole

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Team Oily Rag/Vintagent's entry, 'The Mule', ready for action

The 2nd Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run will begin Friday Sep 7 from Newburgh New York.  That’s the headline anyway; as participants, we’ve all been knee-deep in motorcycle prep for weeks…our ‘ride’ began long ago.  Anyone with a lick of sense about old vehicles understands what it means to ride 4000 miles in 17 days, on a machine which left the factory at least 82 years ago.  Not impossible, just demanding…and anything which goes wrong, and you can’t fix, means the end of your journey, so be a good Boy Scout, and be prepared.

One of 17 Henderson 4-cylinder machines, the second most popular Cannonball bike, after the Harley 'J' series

While my ’28/’33 Velocette hybrid KSS/KTT racer seems mechanically sound after a full rebuild (it certainly sounds healthy through that straight pipe…Loud), I hadn’t attended the necessary brake lights for the rally.  Team Vintagent / Oily Rag arrived a day early, in company with most of the rally, to sort out the last bits of prep…although I saw some serious rebuilding going on in one trailer – like how The Mule looked a week ago.  Yikes!

Bomber art graces the tank of this 1929 Harley J

After working a few hours on the Velo, the team was hungry, and Yelp provided the ‘best Peruvian food’ in Newburgh, which sounded Pisco-soury to me.  On mentioning our destination to one of the locals (a diminutive Santa Claus lookalike), he said no way would he venture to downtown Newburgh, ‘there are gangs down there.  It’s serious. Don’t go.’  And of course, downtown Newburgh looked just fine to me, and the Peruvian food was excellent.  Pisco sours for all!

All the way from Australia…team Wicker Basket!


Oh dear. One more day of wrench time left…

Shinya Kimura's 1913 Indian twin, which he rode on the first Cannonball, and had mechanical trouble. He's determined to finish this year

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1928 Packard 443 Eight cylinder roadster in the Pre-War Preservation class at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance

While the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance -and the universe of shows, auctions, parties, and racing which revolve around it- is best known for fastidious, better-than-new re-creations of exotic automobiles and motorcycles, a new and still small movement is creeping under le tapez rouge.  With small ‘preservation’ classes in most shows (often sponsored by FIVA), the nooks and corners of very expensive golf courses reveal a few gems which have escaped the clutches of the shine-mad magpies dominating the historic vehicle scene.

The term ‘restoration’ applies to no vehicle I saw at Pebble; no automobile was ‘restored’ to resemble ex-factory condition. To qualify for Concours admission, it seems a car or motorcycle must be magically re-imagined as some über version of themselves…perhaps the spiritual essence of perfection which manufacturers would have liked to provide customers, but which market realities prohibit. While admirable, such un-driven wheeled demi-gods are a breed apart, statements of the Possible, but not necessarily the Real…and certainly not the Useful.

1911 Pierce 4, the first American 4-cylinder motorcycle, at the Bonhams Quail Lodge sale

So, like good historians, we turn to what is indisputably ‘real’; examples which retain their maker’s finish, even when time and the elements have exacted their toll. And here’s the charming thing; amidst a blinding sea of reflective polish, the drab bird sings.  Given the appreciative smiles of admirers lingering with a gloriously rusty old Packard, Stutz, or Maserati, the edifice of Restoration At All Costs seems to be cracking at the big shows.  Collectors are getting the message that the Rare Vehicle isn’t the one which has been tarted up, but the one which hasn’t.

In this, the old vehicle world lags decades behind the antique furniture and art worlds, where the market draws a sharp line between the Original and the Questionable, primarily by doubling or trebling the sale price.  Only a fool would re-finish a late 18th Century Louis XV credenza; why has this message not got through to the ‘car people’?

Lovely c.1968 Iso Grifo GL with a layer of dust, and current registration. Bodywork by Giotto Bizzarini, commissioned by Renzo Rivolta, every one of the Corvette engines used was dismantled and 'blueprinted' to give 400+hp…

Motorcycle collectors, in this regard, are well in advance of their four-wheel kin, and values of ‘original paint’ bikes are well above an identical, restored version, for several reasons.  First is the historic truth of an original machine, but a second, more sinister trend is pushing prices of well-documented yet rusty Centenarians through the roof; it’s very easy to install replica parts on a shiny machine, and not much more difficult to make an entirely new one.  While few outright crooks pass these off as the genuine article, passage of such machines through successive hands is like the game of ‘telephone’; the message changes in every iteration, and eventually, like the Velveteen Rabbit, the simulacra becomes Real.  As a result, a shiny old motorcycle is utterly untrustworthy, an object of suspicion and not celebration, guilty until proved innocent of fraud.

This is an area in which the Car and Motorbike worlds diverge; a Bugatti Type 35 built up from only an original gearbox, or nothing at all in the case of a Pur Sang replica, will still fetch 8 figures, whereas no replica ‘teens Henderson 4-cylinder or Indian Board Track Racer is considered anything but office sculpture by collectors, and rarely breaks $45,000 – not a great profit for the replicators, while the Real Things are deep in six-figure territory, and climbing.

1961 Aston Martin DB4 series IV Touring Coupé, with a bit of rust on its wires, but otherwise in fantastic shape, in the Post-War Preservation class at Pebble

There may yet be a day in Pebble’s future where genuine, original condition machines numerically balance the shiny, questionable re-creations on the golf course lawn; at the moment, they’re about 1/8th of the total.  The mere fact of their inclusion is a positive sign.  I predict the future of car collecting to be increasingly split; rising values for excellent original paint vehicles – eventually exceeding their shiny brethren, as it should be – with a still-strong market for shiny, ego boosting dream machines, perfect for deep-pocket magpies.

- Paul d’Orléans

1933 Riley 1.3l Lincock Coupe at the Bonhams Quail Lodge sale

'Red' Fred Johansen's 1960 Maserati 3500 GT which he spotted languishing in a neighbor's carport, and begged for years to buy it…which eventually worked. Now he rallies the car frequently.

1928 Indian Scout factory hillclimber at the MidAmerica Auctions tent, looking ready to kick up dirt all over again

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Rakish and a bit dangerous; a well muscled fellow in a tux

When David Howard first acquired this archetypal Oily Rag exotic, an original-paint 1930s Alfa 1750, it cost him £175 ($275, back in 1956). The estimate when it goes to auction at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival sale on 15th September is £120,000+.  In theory, he stands to make a… er, modest profit on his original investment, but the story isn’t quite that simple.

The car, a 1932 Fifth Series Alfa Romeo 1750 Gran Turismo cabriolet, was exhibited when new by the UK importers at London’s Olympia Motor Show. It was sold off Stand 66 for £995 to Miss Jane Laing, the dashing younger daughter of a Newcastle marine engineer. Jane’s elder sister already owned a similar Alfa, but they traded it for this one, which had been specially prepared for the Show with chrome plated fittings (including the brake drums) and a black and silver snakeskin interior.

Long and elegant, the Alfa 1750 was a film star in its own right

By the time David Howard, at that time a car-crazy teenager with ambitions, as he says, well beyond his station in life, caught up with the car it was on display in a very different environment – on the sales floor of a run-down used car emporium in London’s Great West Road. One short ride was enough to convince the young enthusiast that they were made for each other.

He raised the cash by selling an heirloom carriage clock his octogenarian Godmother had just given him. “Reprehensible,” he says now, “But kinder than selling the old bird herself, which I would have done if I had to.” So the Alfa was his.

The car’s appeal to a certain type of collector today is that it has been properly maintained but never restored, damaged or modified in any significant way. The lusty six-cylinder twin cam engine, four-speed manual transmission, instrumentation, lighting system and all the evocative period fixtures and fittings are pretty much as they were when Miss Laing took delivery 80 years ago. Metallic silver-grey paintwork, worn but intact, gives the car a glamorous gravitas that would make it a stand-out in the Preservation class at Pebble Beach or Villa d’Este.

A picture full of appeal; may I have a drive please?


But what of its history since it first came into young Howard’s hands? Well, with no income to speak of, and not even a driving licence to his name, he was in no position to become the long-term keeper of a car of such distinguished pedigree. After his 17th birthday, duly licensed, he enjoyed it to the maximum for a year or so before exchanging it with another London dealer for a 4½-litre Invicta.

Over the next half century, having established himself as one of Britain’s best known dealers in Vintage and classic machinery, David had more top quality cars through his hands than most of us have ever seen. But, somehow, the memory of that first thoroughbred lingered on until one day in 1994, browsing through some old paperwork, he came upon a photograph of it he had taken all those years ago. Whatever had happened, he wondered, to ETN 627? Had she survived?

Spare wheel included, along with a trunk for several cases of Prosecco…

A phone call to the national vehicle registration office in Swansea soon established that the Alfa did still exist. They wouldn’t reveal any details, of course, so David wrote to them asking that his letter be forwarded to the current owner. A week later a reply arrived from the very man who had bought it back in 1957 direct from the dealer Howard had sold it to. He explained that he had driven it for only a few months before a big-end failed, since when it had sat untouched in his garage awaiting an engine rebuild.

Persuading the guy to part with the car was not so straightforward, but eventually a deal was struck and David Howard became the owner, second time around, of his very first car. Since then he has enjoyed re-visiting old friends and old haunts in it during return visits to the UK from his current home in rural France, revelling in its lively performance and refined handling. But the time has now come, he feels, to look for someone younger who will drive it regularly and cherish it in the same untouched condition for another generation.

Landau top to protect milady's hat…

“If I could put a binding legal covenant on the sale to prevent that car ever being restored,” he says, “I would.” So, step forward Oily Rag aficionados. Now is your moment…


- Douglas Blain



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Feel that fat wooden steering wheel! Smell the leather! If these joyous sensations make you itch to get your hands on this magnificent, one-family-ownership 1928 Mercedes-Benz S-type, then be there when it comes up for auction at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival sale in the UK on 15th September. If its appeal to you is as a challenging restoration project, however, then please stay away.

Designed by Ferdinand Porsche after the Mercedes merger with Benz, the S-type was the first of a series of low slung, supercharged 6.8-litre sporting cars intended to re-establish the company’s name for ultra-high speed excitement among patrician buyers worldwide. Many were sold with rakish coachwork by in-house Sindelfingen and other German designers, but this one, imported as a chassis under order number 38130 by British Mercedes Ltd, the London agents, was bodied for their client to his precise requirements by Cadogan, a firm by that time based in Fulham, London, and well known for relatively restrained sporting bodies on Bentley, Invicta, Packard and OM chassis.

Painted in dark battleship grey with blue leather, this was not an extrovert device intended for driving in the Mr Toad tradition. The panels, like those of many a Three Litre or 4½ Bentley, were of lightweight stretched fabric, a practice borrowed after WW1 from the aircraft industry, with four doors, twin side-mounted spare wheels and full weather equipment. The spacious interior contained big, comfortable seating for four adults, the front ones having adjustable backrests. Luggage could be accommodated in a large trunk at the back, and there were commodious leather door pockets for everyday items.

This splendid old car’s condition is just as we at Oily Rag love to find ‘em. We asked a leading UK dealer if, in his view, it would be worth more or less than that if subjected to a nut-and-bolt concours restoration. “Less,” was his unhesitating response.

Kept in the same dry garage since the 1930s, and properly laid up for more than half a century, it retains its original buff logbook, original paint, original lush leather interior, elaborately stocked instrument panel and all its top quality electrical equipment. The original scuttle-mounted identification plate is still in place, informing us that the car carries chassis number 1396, engine 1395, with 26 nominal horsepower developing 120bhp.

Later examples of this prestige model went on to achieve great success in international racing. The 7.1-litre SS, SSK and SSKL triumphed in the Ulster TT in 1929, the Irish GP in 1930, the Mille Miglia and the Eifelrennen in 1931 and the Avus race in the same years. The first examples, however, of which this is one, are treasured as being the most practical and by far the most pleasant to drive. Let us pray that this magnificent gentleman’s motor carriage is never subjected to the indignity of a full-scale restoration.

- Douglas Blain

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When I first knew Dennis Severs in the 1970s, he was carting tourists ‘round West London in a decrepit, 100-year-old horsedrawn landau. Later, I sold him a house in then-slummy (now chic) inner-London Spitalfields, where he soon adopted a lifestyle no different from that of the Huguenot family he claimed had built the place in 1724.

And I do mean no different. No electricity. No central heating. No gas. Dennis relied on coal fires to warm the place, which they did to great effect. Lighting was by candle-power, literally. He heated water and cooked his meals on an old coal-fired range in the basement, and slept in a grubby four-poster bed in the attic.

Surrounding himself with suitably dilapidated 18th century furniture, pictures, rugs, cracked crockery, cutlery and glassware, he opened his new home to the public, who flocked to experience life as it was really lived 200 years ago. They paid handsomely for the experience, and still do. For when Dennis died in 2000 he left the house and all its contents to a local charity, the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, which maintains everything exactly as he left it.

Dennis was the son of a gas station proprietor in Escondido, California. He came to London to study law but had to give up because he was dyslexic. He then discovered the novels of Charles Dickens, memorising lengthy chunks of the best of them and immersing himself in London’s past.

Leading people around that incredibly atmospheric house, with each room set up to represent an incident in the lives of his fictional family, the Jervises, he was an autocrat. Only native English speakers were allowed in, in case they missed the gentle, ironic humour of his commentary. No animals, and strictly no children. Complete silence was the rule: one word and you were out.

Passing by, I would see groups of visitors at the end of their hour-long tour with tears streaming down their faces, distraught at the thought of a way of life that had gone forever.

Today, the régime is slightly less rigorous but the atmosphere just the same. See for yourself at www.dennissevershouse.co.uk

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What, one may ask, is Oily Rag? To us, Oily Rag means the gentle art of leaving well alone. Whatever it may be – a bike, a car, a house, a painting, a piece of furniture or clothing – it is only original once. To restore it, no matter how skilfully or accurately, is in our view to destroy the evidence of use that is a major part of the appeal of an antique or vintage object, as opposed to even a careful reproduction.

Of course, there are instances where an element of replacement is inevitable. An antique table may have lost a leg. A priceless Old Master painting may have been damaged or inexpertly restored in the past [or have a hole knocked by a billionaire’s elbow – Ed.]. A period house, perhaps hundreds of years old, may have been superficially ‘modernised’. An old car or motorcycle may have had inappropriate new components substituted for old. But does this mean full blown restoration is the only solution?

No. Our mission here at Oily Rag is to promulgate the opposite view, even to the extent of encouraging de-storation rather than restoration. In the UK in the 19th century, the ‘restoration’ of ancient buildings, particularly churches, had become a mania. To many architects of that time, the term meant destroying the original structure and rebuilding it in a style more ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ in the light of contemporary theory. That academic evidence would no doubt have mystified its original builders, who may well have been simple, uneducated local tradesmen whose only training had consisted of apprenticeships served decades beforehand in the time honoured methods of their forebears.

The 'smoking room'...although with no electricity, both the lights and the heating 'smoked'...

Very often it is these long forgotten misunderstandings, the makeshift solutions, the crudities even, that make an old object unique and give it a charm no textbook replica can possess. William Morris (1834-1896), the great Arts and Crafts theorist and practitioner, argued passionately for repair rather than restoration. His belief was that any new work necessary to ensure the survival of an old building should be left looking new, rather than artificially patinated. His philosophy survives today in the manifesto of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings – a UK organisation which he founded and which is still consulted on such matters.

We wouldn’t go quite that far. At the risk of upsetting devotees of Mr Morris, if an otherwise untouched old vehicle came into our possession that had been marred by the inappropriate replacement of a worn seat cushion or a crumpled fender, we wouldn’t hesitate to seek out sufficient well-worn leather to make good the deficiency, or to match the old paint on the rest of the bodywork. In both cases we would even patinate it artificially, rather than leave these alterations to spoil the effect of a venerable artefact that had in other respects stood the test of time.

Are we alone in these beliefs? To judge from the prices fetched at auction by unrestored, well provenanced original antique furniture, pictures, rugs, clocks, pottery and almost anything else we can think of, the answer is no. Collectors in these fields have learned to appreciate the fact that, by favouring objects in untouched condition, they are protecting themselves against secret enhancement or fraudulent alteration as well as preserving a rare survival from the distant past with a particular history of human use and even misuse.

Our aim here is to document finds and discoveries in all fields of collecting which embody these ideals. Likewise, we shall not hesitate to draw attention to what we regard as acts of vintage vandalism. If you share our (possibly eccentric) tastes and preferences, or even if you don’t, your participation in this crusade is invited…

- Douglas Blain

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