by John Neuenburg
When I met my wife-to-be in 1978, she didn’t know I liked “military stuff.” I wasn’t hiding anything, because military-related hobbies were far from my mind at that time. This is a story of how things in life can come full circle.
Like a lot of boys who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, my brother and I played with cap guns and often dressed up as cowboys or soldiers. Life was all about Davy Crockett and Sgt. Rock. I used to run around in front of my house with my father’s Type 99 Arisaka “bring back” rifle. Imagine doing that now!
For hours, I would draw tanks, ships, airplanes, then spend allowance money on plastic models, sets of miniature soldiers, and military comic books. As a teenager, this faded when I discovered motorcycles and an off-road riding club. My job at a grocery store paid for many dirt and street bikes. This evolved into motocross racing for a year, and then I switched to oval tracks. College put a damper on my racing career before it ended. It was time to slow down.
In 1978, Marilynn and I were set up by friends to go on a blind date to a snow skiing show in San Francisco. That was our shared hobby. At that time, I liked guns and hunting, which she didn’t take to. She did like to fish, so after we were married in 1980, we travelled to the Mt. Shasta and Burney Falls areas to camp and trout fish—and of course, we skied. I had a BMW street bike and she enjoyed riding on the back of it. She knew about the racing background, but little of my childhood interests.
In 1985, I decided to come out of retirement and try Class A speedway racing. A speedway bike works very differently from any other kind of motorcycle. It is very light and powerful on alcohol, with steering geometry designed to be thrown into a dirt turn completely sideways on the power using the throttle to steer. Normal Class C bikes have to be slowed down going into the corner with the rear brake or by sliding one or both tires, then the throttle is applied coming out with a small rear wheel slide. Because speedway is so different, I borrowed a Jawa race bike and went to a rider training class led by a prominent professional.
This ended badly. The unnatural riding style caused me to tire and stiffen, whereupon I dumped the bike and nearly dislocated my left shoulder!
The next week doing sales visits, I had to open the massive door of my Buick Regal by reaching across with my right hand. Not good. Then Marilynn said something that was to change our lives: “What are you doing? Aren’t you a little old to be racing? Why don’t you buy an antique Harley and go slow for a change?”
TRADING THE RACING HELMET FOR A STEEL POT
I started learning about vintage bikes. One trip to the big antique meet in Sacramento was an eye-opener because I learned there was such a thing as a WWII military motorcycle. I saw a BSA M20, Harley WLA, and two XAs. This brought back nice memories of military equipment. Right then I decided to combine past and current interests. The hunt for a military motorcycle was on!
The first bike we looked at was a BMW R75M heavy sidecar rig offered for $10,000. This was a lot, because in 1985, a WLA was $5,000. On the test drive with the owner on the back seat and Marilynn in the sidecar, I went to pull to the side of the road and forgot the sidecar was there. Up the curb it went! Good thing there wasn’t a parking meter there. This scooter was a bit much, so we passed.
The next lead was for a 1941 Indian 640 with 437 miles on it. We arranged to see it. I guess I forgot to tell her it was military because when she saw the OD thing with the star on the tank, she said, “I was expecting a red Indian with chrome and a chief picture on the tank.” It was priced like a WLA, so we bought it.
Later we found out the military 45 cubic inch 640s were very rare. There were about 4,400 bought by the Army and most of the surplus bikes were converted to look like the 1941 Sport Scout which was arguably the best looking Indian made, or they were used up on race tracks.
We learned of the Military Vehicle Collectors Club and a local one called the California Chapter, MVCC. We joined both.
Our first event was the “40 Years After” military show in a pier building at Ft. Mason in San Francisco that had been an embarkation/debarkation pier during WWII.
In the Veteran’s Day parade just prior to the show, I was on the bike dressed in a U.S. Ike jacket uniform sporting a First Special Service Force shoulder patch. At a pause in the parade, an old guy walked out from the crowd, put his finger on the patch, and said, “Where did you get that?” Turned out he was a Devil’s Brigade vet! Right then, I knew this was more than just a car club for lazy collectors who don’t like to wax them!
In April 1986, we attended our first big military vehicle meet, the Patterson Rally. I started acquiring uniforms and gear. On sales trips, I would visit surplus, antique, and thrift stores.
After the purchase of a BSA folding military bicycle I decided I needed a British battledress setup which led to meeting Major Jerry Lee who was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco. He had just started importing British WWII uniforms and equipment to sell out of his quarters (don’t tell anybody) and I was one of his first customers. He gave me a good enough deal so I’d buy multiples, not knowing then that I would end up with enough British WWII kit to outfit a dozen mannequins in different Army uniform versions. Jerry now owns “What Price Glory,” an excellent source for U.S. and British reproduction uniforms.
Two more BSA folders were added to the collection, a 1942 GPW, and then a 1944 Ford M20.It has been a great hobby for 30 years and “female friendly” enough so Marilynn enjoys it, although she misses the “civilian” camping and fishing.
My concern is there are not many young people getting involved. We took our son Jeff to the Patterson meet at age four months and to many after that. He learned how to drive the jeep at the Big Bear meet. But with high school, came sports, computer gaming, then college and more sports. He has never asked to drive the Indian or M20. He might show up at a Tower Park meet for a half day. He grew up differently from me although he has been exposed to the hobby.
Will he come full circle like I did? Will Jeff answer JAG’s call to write an article about how he got his start in the HMV hobby? I hope to be around to read it when he does!