Jim Wall remembers bringing his 1936 Indian flat track racer to the Sturgis motorcycle rally 25 years ago.
The bike elicited little more than a ‘Yeah, that’s nice’ attitude among the throng of rallygoers at the time, Wall recalls.
“We were like the unwanted stepchild,” said Wall, of Englewood, Colo.
“Look at what’s happening now,” he said.
What’s happening now is that vintage motorcycles are increasingly becoming "the thing" at Sturgis, thanks to an overall interest in nostalgia and preserving motorcycling history.
Beyond putting a primo original or fully restored museum piece on display, vintage enthusiasts take no small pride in not only keeping a decades-old, long out-of-production motorcycle running, but even in racing condition.
That was the case at Monday’s Pride of Sturgis Vintage Festival at an equally historic venue, the Sturgis Fairgrounds Half-Mile, where the Sturgis rally grew from humble beginnings in 1938.
Sponsored by Indian Motorcycles of Sturgis, the festival showcased about a dozen antique racers in exhibition races and a meet-and-greet with spectators.
“Look at this. I’m a rock star for 30 seconds. This is cool,” said Roy Taboade of Millbrea, Calif., as he autographed an event poster for a young man after the races.
Taboade made his first trip to Sturgis this year, bringing his 1948 Harley-Davidson WR, a factory-built race bike produced from 1941-52, a machine that would have stormed around the storied Sturgis half-mile in great numbers back in the day.
Taboade won his race, then drove the bike off a platform where the winner was supposed to pose for photos, denting an exhaust pipe in the process (race bikes from that era had no brakes.)
“You downshift and slow down as much as you can, then you drop it into neutral and drag your feet, just like the Flintstones,” Taboade said.
Taboade isn’t going to worry about the bent exhaust pipe, calling it a trophy from Sturgis. But he said finding replacement parts for old motorcycles is the most difficult part of keeping them running.
“You usually have to buy garbage and spin it into gold,” he said, citing as an example an engine with completely worn cylinders that will need to have sleeves installed or be otherwise rebuilt.
Most vintage riders and builders have a network of friends and friends-of-friends nationwide who know where to find parts and services for old bikes, but a more recent development — the internet — has been a boon for vintage hobbyists.
“Years ago, to keep old bikes running they had to know where to go or know a guy somewhere,” said Troy Cade of Newcastle, Wyo., who brought a 1948 Indian Chieftain to Sturgis and parked it along Junction Avenue for passing bikers to admire.
“Now you can get online and find what you need,” he said.
In addition, some aftermarket parts and accessory company are re-manufacturing parts for old bikes.
“It’s not as tough to keep ‘em running anymore,” Cade said.
But that doesn’t mean vintage bikes are cheaper to maintain or rebuild.
“I’d like to say they’re cheaper than a modern bike, but they’re not,” Taboade said. “They’re very expensive.”
Taboade is a racer, however, putting the potential for damage and even destruction of his bike aside when the green light goes on at the start of a race. The competitive drive kicks in about two laps on, he said.
“I shouldn’t run it as hard as I do, because they are expensive, but you’re here to race,” he said.
Taboade and a few other festival racers were photographed in equally fitting old-school fashion by R.J. “Rob” Gibson of Gettysburg, Penn., who brought his three-wheeled mobile wet-plate photo studio and darkroom to the festival.
Wanting to combine his interests in history, old-style photography and vintage motorcycles, Gibson searched long and hard for a Harley-Davidson package truck, a commercial sidecar which was never meant to haul people, only goods or a tradesman’s tools.
Gibson already had a 1950 Harley-Davidson Panhead. He found a frame for a 1938 H-D package truck last November.
The truck box wasn’t worth saving, so Gibson built a step-van box from original H-D plans to house his tiny wet-plate photo darkroom, where he coats glass plates with chemical emulsions to use in an antique box camera, then develops the plate while huddled under a black cloth at the rear of the small van.
“This is where Ansel Adams meets Easy Riders,” he joked.
Wall said vintage bikers combine overall passion for old bikes and a specific loyalty to a brand. Indian had ceased production in 1953, before being revived in the late 1990s.
“To me it was all my mentors and all my friends were Indian dealers and Indian riders,” Wall said. “Having the opportunity to interact with those guys, you want to carry the torch.
“I have a passion for the marque, and I want to see it do the best it can because of the history,” he said.
Cade said owning an old-style bike gives him a new appreciation for the riders who made their way to Sturgis in the early years of the rally. He also owns a new Indian road bike, as well as one from the resurgent years of the 1990s, modified for drag racing.
The 1948 Chieftain require a completely different style of riding. The old bikes have a foot clutch, requiring a rider to only put one foot down while stopped. A hand gear-shift meant taking a hand off the handlebars to change gears, the opposite of modern bikes which use a hand clutch and a foot to shift gears.
“Taking a bike like this isn’t near as comfortable,” he said. “This is the roots and everybody admires them, but it’s not like everyone wants to ride one.”
Gibson has no problem relating to the combined love of history and motorcycling he sees with other vintage motorcycle owners.
“These guys put their heart and soul into these things, not only blood, sweat and tears, and also a lot of money,” he said. “The latest, greatest equipment is awesome, but this really captures the spirit of what they’re doing.”