“Let me guess, you need my truck. Sigh. What nonsense have you gotten me involved in?” Myles was looking at me half with contempt, and half with amusement. Contempt because I sprung this on him literally that morning, amusement because he knew I just made him a partner in crime to something very stupid or very awesome. It was both.
The very stupid/awesome idea was a motorcycle. But not just any motorcycle. An Honest to god, built in the 1970’s, might just kill you if you look at it funny chopper. I had become a regular at Alan Maver’s Metarie cycles looking for parts, sage advice, or to ogle the norton commando fastback and JPS Norton he had in the shop. Even though this was the early 2000s and the internet was a thing, the shop had a small bulletin board on the side wall next to the counter. Tacked to that board was a photograph of a gold metalflake hardtail chopper, not something that had been printed on a printer but something shot with film, developed, printed at a now distant memory photomat, and then probably stuffed in an album or drawer until it became time to spear it to the bulliten board next to a barely legible hand scrawled note: Honda Chopper $1200 Phone – XXX-XXX-XXXX. I asked Alan about it and he told me he had put it together in 1974 out of a new cb550 with a friend of his, that I was too tall (6’5”) to ride it, and then proceeded to pull out an album of photographs from the 1970’s showing many Honda choppers he built, sitting on angel hair and mirror pedestals or surrounded by trophies from shows only remembered by 5 old timers on a softball team somewhere. I wasted no time and called the number.
Pre Katrina New Orleans was a gearhead paradise. The climate and public transportation system meant you could drive or ride any number of old vehicles as your daily. Despite being near both the gulf and the Mississippi stuff really didn’t rot, although the humidity did make a lot of interiors smell terrible and grow things if left unattended. I had been working on my junkyard 1974 kawasaki h1 – literally pulled from the yard at Clancy’s cycle salvage, that I had just started to make run again but it needed so many other things that I was constantly getting the itch to ride only to find a broken motorcycle in my garage. Everywhere I looked I saw people riding old vespas, tank shift Harleys, cb Hondas, old datsun 1600 roadsters and ford falcons, but nobody had an easy rider style chopper. What was also nice was that you could still find great garage finds in reasonable shape. Many times I would show up to people’s houses and see an old 1970’s Oldsmobile, 1960’s galaxie, t-bucket projects, and dozens of old bikes just hanging out in their garage waiting for a hint of a spark to get them going again. Even the old 60’s cadillacs you often saw on blocks in driveways looked solid and rust free enough to be saved to my northeastern rust belt seasoned eyes. Katrina would later flood all these bikes and cars out, nature’s own forced garage sale, and whatever garage finds didn’t get hauled away for destruction the acrid chemical laden water would jump start advanced metal decay till the junkyards would groan with their ferrous oxide hulks. But Katrina was still 3 years away, and I had hope that this chopper was going to be alright.
Alan had warned me that he didn’t think it had run in years. When I called a man of few words answered the number, confirmed it hadn’t been on the road in almost a decade, and that it may be in several pieces. I was undeterred. Myles had a lifted green Ford F250, the only friend I knew with a pickup, so on a Saturday morning I hit him up for a favor. A 10 am we were off to Marrero, Louisiana, on the west bank of the Mississippi river. When we arrived we were greeted by the owner, Jackie, who was at the time was a 20 year veteran oil rig worker, and equally of few words in person as he was on the phone. When he opened the garage there sat everything I had hoped for, a 70’s chopper. A raked out, narrow Springer, hallcraft minidrum, rigid, drag piped chopper. It became immediately obvious that the bulletin board picture had been from better days as the amen ridge back tank had been replaced with a red painted mustang tank that had “rice rocket” lettered on it. The wiring was frayed and there were about a dozen 3m connectors visible in the wiring harness. The House of color pagan gold candy flake paint, which used real copper shavings in the base coat, had oxidized to the point where streaks of green were beginning to show through the candy clear. It sat on a 2.75 avon speedmaster front and a Mag mopus rear, both flat. Don’t worry, they are only flat on the bottom he jokingly reassured me. The Louisiana license plate had a 1983 tag. But it was a roller, with the engine in the frame, it kicked over and the carbs were really the only thing that was in a box. When I asked about the amen ridgeback tank he told me he was keeping it for his 750 chopper project.
What is it about choppers that turn mild mannered gear head Americans into irrational morons? Is it the open channel in our psyche that movies like Easy Rider, the born losers, the hells angels on wheels, et al that appeal to our baser instincts to ride motorcycles, wear aviators, and try as hard to fight or fornicate when we aren’t riding? I don’t have the answers but I can say that I was doing a poor job of hiding my giddy excitement during the negotiation because I got nowhere and ended up paying his asking price. And you know what? I don’t regret it. I paid the man his money and then the three of us lifted all 300 lbs of custom motorcycle into myles’s pickup truck and I headed off into the New Orleans sunset. This was going to be so cool.
Coming in Part II – daily living with an a legend.