I remember a visit to SF in the early 1990s on my way home from covering a conference in Australia. In addition to the writing thing, I had shot a ton of film (slides and Tri-X, remember those?) and Jim graciously offered to zip me around town on his Triumph bike: back and forth to the lab, to lunch, running errands, etc.
He was psyched because, after a long time without one, he had gotten himself another Triumph Bonneville, featuring the vanity plate: GORT JR., a wink toward the GORT plate he had on his Shelby Mustang. It was right around the time that California passed its version of a mandatory helmet law, and Jim was adamant in his opposition, livid really. Ever the free choice-loving libertarian, he said he would NEVER wear a (insert your version of f bombs here) helmet and even threatened to quit riding altogether. They could just ticket his ass, he said, and anyway he couldn’t ride with a helmet because it “didn’t feel right” and messed with his peripheral vision and made him a distinctly less safe rider.
So there we were zipping around SF, helmetless, and I remember it felt great. He had these big ole sunglasses and, when he took them off, you could see how swarthy he could get from the tan he was sporting on that big ole proboscis. Jim was a confident rider and, other than having to put up with his sly remarks about how great I felt and to hold him tighter, he was far less aggressive (thankfully) than he was in an automobile.
In doing some research for this blog, most folks I talked to about bikes said there are “car people” or “motorcycle people,” meaning even if a person collects both or is passionate about both, one is always closer to his or her heart. Jim was a car guy, in my opinion, but he had a rare spark for those classic British Triumphs and their right-hand shifters (the opposite of American bikes). In fact, he would never ride American bikes, saying he learned on a Triumph and his brain couldn’t make the shift (so to speak) to left-hand set ups, and besides he damn near killed himself the one time he tried.
Jim just LOVED the Triumph Bonnevilles and had Triumph factoids he liked to spout, such as that in the classic WWII POW film “The Great Escape” Steve McQueen made his escape on a seriously modified Triumph made to look like a German Army bike.
I spoke with Jim’s longtime friend and fellow photographer, Tom Zimberoff, himself no slouch when it comes to a passion for motorcycles. Check out his fantastic 2006 book “Art of the Chopper” and the corresponding exhibit currently in Kansas City if you happen to be in that neck of the woods.
“The Bonneville motorcycle was a tribute to the past,” Tom points out. “There was such a mystique and aura around the ’60s and motorcycles were such a key part of it. Sure Nortons and BSAs were around, but back then there were really two choices in the U.S., you either had a Triumph or a Harley. Jim seemed to relish having the Bonneville, maybe it was the homage to the Salt Flats and the speed trials. He used to say he felt like he was missing something if he didn’t have one. I thought that it kept Jim connected to the ’60s, to that time of his life when he did his best work, maybe when he was most alive.”
Jim’s last bike, according to the Rodder Journal article was “a gorgeously restored British Racing Green and yellow Triumph Bonneville motorcycle in his garage.” Tom also told me that Jim kept a seat for that last Bonneville in that same garage, even after he sold the bike. Maybe the seat was broken and the new buyer didn’t want or need it, but I prefer to think that Jim just needed to keep a little piece of that bike, to try to stay connected to that wild, helmet-less, brilliant young ride.