Wednesday, February 03, 2016


(Originally published in
My favorite machine of the week, a 5/8ths scale Indian board track racer, which runs!  
The Las Vegas motorcycle auctions, held early January for the past 25 years, are the 800lb gorilla of the collector bike market, setting benchmark prices as the whole world is watching.  This year over 1000 machines sat parked two hotels - Ballys for trad English Bonhams auctions, and the South Point Casino for the all-American Mecum cattle drive, with a $30 cab ride separating the two.  Bring a bike or rent a car; it’s cheaper than cabbing from the Strip to the outerlands and back, because whether you stay in town or at the South Point, you’ll want to escape Las Vegas’ twilight interior netherworld at some point over 5 days.  This year I discovered a hip sushi joint in old-town Fremont, with a Portlandish interior and actual fresh air entering through operable windows – exotic stuff on the Strip.
Malcolm Barber of Bonhams auctions an amazing original-paint 1930 Harley-Davidson with twin headlamps
Full disclosure; I’m so in bed with both these auction houses it’s a scandal, with Bonhams the principal underwriter of my blog, and Mecum hiring me to provide ‘color’ during their auction and sportscast during their NBCSN broadcast. 
More than one 1965 Triumph T120 Bonneville came under the hammer at Mecum, and this one sold for $14k. 
There seems to be no middle ground in the moto-auction world today; the line in the sand is $100k, which sets the truly collectible apart from the ordinary riffraff.  The majority of bikes sell for under $30k (about the price of a new Harley dresser), while the fat-wallet boys push everything else into six figures, with almost nothing in between.  Collecting bikes has become a two-tier system…which looks a whole lot like our current economy.  Similarly, a small number of buyers dominated the Vegas proceedings, snagging dozens of bikes over the week; some for resale, most to bolster already large collections.  What’s the ideal size of a motorcycle collection?  One more.
Here are 10 examples from this years’ auctions, which say a lot about the market, and what buyers think is hot or not.
One of a string of really nice '50s/60s British machines which sold for peanuts at Bonhams, all in original or 'rider' condition.  This 1959 AJS Model 31 one looked to have a Von Dutch tank, but was a bargain in any case
1. 1959 AJS Model 31: Bonhams had two dozen no-reserve ‘estate’ British singles and twins lined up at Ballys, none of which I would kick out of my garage. This one piqued my interest; the paint job and pinstriping looked suspiciously Von Dutch.  Close examination revealed a ‘Bates…60’ signature, but the grumpy pinstriper liked pseudonyms. A gaggle of Von Dutch collectors examined the tank, we all shrugged our shoulders and said ‘probably’, but it’s headed to England now, selling for $4830.  Clearly the Von Dutch craze has cooled.   More good news: 1950/60s/70s Britbikes are totally affordable, with original bikes fetching $4-8k at Bonhams, and restored versions hitting twice that at Mecum.  Bonnevilles, Commandos, and other twin-cylinder weekend riders have very stable prices.
Yes, it looks like a red Rapide, but No! It's really a white Shadow in red!  Mind games are becoming very expensive in the old bike world...this bike had been modified for road use, with Mikuni carbs and Lightning brakes, etc.  Someone enjoyed it, surely, but the price today...
2. 1950 Vincent ‘White’ Shadow: Postwar Vincent twins have settled into a pattern; a Rapide model in good condition hovers around $45k, and its near-identical sister the Black Shadow costs two or three times that.  Unless it’s a ‘white’ Shadow, which looks like a Rapide but isn’t, and especially if it’s painted red, then you’re balls deep at $345k.  If that sounds confusing, you’re obviously not the sort to pay $1M for an ‘inverted Jenny’ postage stamp.   To explain; all Vincents are collectible, but not particularly rare – the company built around 7000 twins in 9 years after WW2, with a range of options.  Some options were rarely produced, like a Black Shadow with unpainted engine cases – colloquially called the ‘White’ Shadow.  The factory only sold one Series C Black Shadow with unpainted engine cases and red bodywork – the Red ‘White’ Shadow.  Vincent prices have become a geeky-greedy numbers game, based on hype and factory-records rarity.  Just like Musclecars.
Tasty! I'm certain this pre-unit TR6 custom sold for a record price for a Triumph custom not built by Von Dutch or owned by McQueen! 
3. 1959 Triumph TR6 Custom: I would never have recommended selling a custom motorcycle at Las Vegas – prices for customized Harley-Davidsons are embarrassingly low, with Brit customs much the same.  A lot of disappointed builders feel forced to drop their reserves, and sell for peanuts.  That said, this traditional Triumph bob-job had terrific attention to detail and an exceptional build quality; all boxes were ticked and it just looked right.  Several bidders at Mecum thought so too, duking it out for a full 5 minutes and driving the price to $34k including auction fees, but not sales tax.  That’s probably what the builder charged had into it, and I think this was a record for a Triumph custom not previously owned by Fonzie.  A bargain tweaked Triumph was a nutso twin-engine across the frame pre-unit ‘4’, at $23k.  Not reproducible at this price, and if one wanted to make a statement, this was an Oscar Wilde quip.  By double contrast, a sad ’59 T120 Bonneville ‘bobber’ in a rigid frame, with the droopy stance of a home-built special, fetched only $4300 at Bonhams, probably for its rare first-year powerplant.
Everybody wants one; so cute and sporty.  In the real world, they're slow; it's only a 125cc from 1960 after all! The Honda Benly Super Sport if a masterpiece of design and engineering though...
4. 1960 Honda Benly 125cc Super Sport:  Always coveted for its racy looks and hot spec (it was the fastest 125 in the world), this lovely restored Benly cost someone $13,400, which seems a lot for such a small machine, but they’ve stabilized at this price for several years.  Middle-aged dudes are also restoring Honda ‘Monkey Bikes’, which sell all day long for $4k.  Non-4 cylinder Japanese bikes hover in the $3-8000 range, even if they’re totally restored, so that RD350 or H1 you covet is still affordable.
Two people really wanted this Confederate Wraith, so the price went sky high.  I bet neither has actually ridden one!  I have - while the engine is terrific and powerful, and the suspension works well, the handling around corners is really weird, and felt like the rear wheel was jacked up in corners.  For showboating only, but what a looker.
5. 2007 Confederate Wraith: Pretty much speechless at the $103,500 hammer on this one, which meant TWO bidders were determined to take it home.  Actually purchased by a German friend of mine, who texted, ‘As the Confederate flag is now forbidden in your country, I thought I would take the Confederate bike too.’  Very considerate, Helmut…I think.  Meanwhile in the real world, a ’99 Hellcat Roadster sold for $20,700.
Nobody thought this ex-McQueen Triumph desert sled would recoup its $85k purchase price at auction several years ago...but they were wrong!  $103,500...people just want some Steve.
6. 1963 Triumph Bonneville ‘desert sled’: Steve McQueen magic levitates cash from wallets, and this beautifully patinated dirt bike, complete with mid-level scrambler pipes and a leather Bates seat, broke the ton at $103,500.  I’m often asked ‘what’s the McQueen multiplier?’  In this case, its 1500%.  Hero worship is not rational, nor is it consistent; McQueen owned a whole lot of motorcycles, some of which he rode, and some are titled to his Solar Productions business; Lord knows who actually rode them, but McQueen on the title is good enough.
Okay, it's a big plastic slab, but exquisitely crafted and part of a long evolution of alternative motorcycle design. Purchased for peanuts; buy one now while the market is at rock bottom, the Bimota Tesi 1D is a whole lotta motorcycle. 
7. 1992 Bimota Tesi: The typical value curve of used motorcycles starts with a 20% hit the minute they leave the showroom, then a downward slide till they hit rock bottom at the 20 year mark.  Prices perk up as nostalgia kicks in, and far exceed the original price eventually, bringing them to the value of a new machine, or much more if the bike is rare or the object of universal lust. Bimotas are at the bottom of that curve right now, with ten perfect examples selling in Vegas as little as $7000 (a ’96 Mantra DB3) or $16,750 for the remarkable 1992 Tesi 1D.  Early Bimotas, the 1970s models, are well over $20k now, so if you’ve ever had a hankering for hand-crafted Italian road jewelry, pull the trigger soon.
Factory cutaways qualify as guilt-free sculpture, and sell for big money, like $110k for this '56 BSA Gold Star
8. 1956 BSA Gold Star Cutaway Model:  Herb Harris is best known for owning the most famous Vincents in the world at various times, including the Rollie Free ‘bathing suit’ record-breaker.  He’s also a keen collector of factory display-model cutaway engines and whole bikes, like this BSA Goldie built for the ’56 Earls Court Show, which is motorized for both engine and suspension function!  An intact ’56 Gold Star might cost $25k, but one cut up by factory apprentices set someone back $110,000.  That’s a fine art price for a non-rolling sculpture.   Herb’s cutaway Norton, Matchless and BSA engines fetched $5-8k, about the cost of a whole machine.  Are moto-sculptures worth so much more than an actual riding experience?  For whatever reason, the answer is yes.
Jet bike. Kerosene is cheap! Blow away your neighbors, and your leaves too!
9. 2004 MTT Y2K Turbine:  You CAN own a jet bike.  It would have cost you $115,000 at Mecum.  Jay Leno hilariously recounts melting a Subaru’s bumper at a stoplight with the exhaust from his MTT; you can melt bumpers too.  I recall a pair of MTT’s firing up in the forecourt of the Ritz hotel at the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours, then being shooed away by the staff; jets are powerful unburnt kerosene pumps.  1000% more obnoxious than an open-pipe Harley chopper.
Last of the American hot-rod Fours, a '29 Cleveland Tornado.  The Depression killed off the last of the small American bike producers, leaving just Harley-Davidson and Indian...but we once had a thriving and fascinating industry
10. 1929 Cleveland Tornado 4-cylinder:  The fastest American motorcycle in ’29, good for 100mph, which is why their #1 customers were cops.  Prewar American fours are floating around the six-figure mark, and this bike sold for $115k.  Two other fours (Pierce and Henderson) were similar money at Mecum, and an Ace four at Bonhams was much the same.  If you want an early American multi, expect to pay $25k/cylinder.
Blink and you missed it!  Working with the NBCSN crew on two broadcasts - sporstcasting for motorcycle auctions!  It's fun work - this is Scott Hoke, Mecum's regular commentator on NBC, along with John Kraman


Saturday, January 16, 2016


Carey 'Loftin' the front wheel of his 1947 Velocette MSS in the hills of SoCal.
A friend sent this to me today; an episode of the classic 1969 motorcycle TV show 'Then Came Bronson', in which James Bronson (Michael Parks) meets Alex (Keenan Wynn) in Sturgis.  Alex has a 1937 Rudge Ulster hidden away in a friend's garage, and Bronson's presence reveals his secret, causing a bit of strife with his wife.  The episode has great riding scenes towards the end, with the men off-roading their respective machines (Rudge Ulster and Harley-Davidson Sportster) in the green grass of the Black Hills, including a flying leap over a creek.  Bronson learns a bit about the viability of vintage motorcycles in the process - undoubtedly you'll think the Ulster a far more suitable off-road machine than a '69 Sportster!  Keenan Wynn was well known for his motorcycle enthusiasm, but the stunts look to be performed by Carey Loftin , who had quite a career.

Carey Loftin is an AMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a legendary stuntman who taught himself trick riding skills as a very young man.  At 19 he was hired in Skip Fordyce's traveling stunt-riding show after performing a back flip from the saddle, landing behind the bike and controlling it with the seat, before hopping back on and coming to a halt.  Loftin earned his living via trick riding and mechanicking during the Depression, and after WW2 started work in Hollywood as a stuntman and character actor, with hundreds of film and TV credits over a 50-year career, riding motorcycles and driving cars, including hairy scenes in 'Bullitt', 'The French Connection', and 'Vanishing Point.'  Loftin died in 1997 at the ripe age of 83 - who says stunt riding leads to an early grave?
Carey Loftin and actor Rory Calhoun aboard his Triumph Thunderbird and Steib sidecar
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Tuesday, December 22, 2015


The slipcover of 'The Book About My Bike', published by Niels Schoen
A host of terrific motorcycle books cross my desk every year; in this I'm very lucky, as books are one of life's great pleasures.  Books are also the foundation of TheVintagent, along with decades' experience with vintage machinery, and not web-search content - long may it remain so.  I write books too, and contributed this year to 'The Ride: 2nd Gear' from Gestalten, who published my magnum opus on choppers last year, 'The Chopper; the Real Story'.   And while I reviewed 'The Ride: 2nd Gear' on, there's a solo effort you won't find in any bookstore which absolutely blew my mind this year.
Niels' uncle Ko, Nikolaas Bernardus Konijn, who restored Nortons in his small shed
It's called 'The Book About My Bike, C11M14566', and I know - the un-sexiest motorbook title ever. I was merely geek-interested when Niels Schoen offered to send his self-published book about Uncle Ko's Garden Gate Manx, which he inherited and restored.  But Niels is a freelance CAD-engineer, and while taking his uncle's Manx to bits, he thought it 'a good training exercise' to render every single part of the Manx in the SolidWorks program, so the bike could be dis/reassembled virtually while the same was happening in his living room.  Niels lives in a 4-storey walkup in Rotterdam, and has no workshop, so the disassembly, scanning, cleaning, and reassembly was done literally in-house.
The actual Norton Manx as it appears today in Niels' living room
Scanning and rendering over 800 parts took 9 months, and was completed in September 2010. It took a further few years to figure out 'how to present and share all the oddities, the beauty and the marvels I encountered in the process.'  He took inspiration from Mick Walker's 'Manx Norton' book of 1990, as well as an original 1948 Norton advertisement featuring the Garden Gate Manx.  The resulting layout is impeccable, as is the information; every exploded view of a parts assembly is accompanied by the relevant part numbers, and labeled according to Norton's original nomenclature.  The text is a mix of family history, Norton lore, and straight-ahead explanation of what's shown.  The book is, in sum, the best parts list/assembly manual ever devised for a motorcycle.  It's the manual every confused motorcyclist wishes for; an absolutely clear view of how it all fits together, so brilliantly self-explanatory it makes a Haynes manual look utterly primitive.
A SolidWorks rendering of the same Norton as it was being assembled virtually; some of the illustrations are very difficult to tell from photographs
I understand it's far too much work to create such a manual for every motorcycle, but I'm jealous there isn't such a book for all my motorcycles.  And for, say, a Velocette Mk8 KTT or Brough Superior SS100 for some fascinating entertainment.  Niels Schoen isn't the only person to have rendered every single part of a motorcycle; Uwe Ehinger has done the same for most Harley-Davidsons ever built, and anyone making replicas (or 'continuations') today is no doubt using SolidWorks to render their parts as well.  After building an actual motorcycle, I can't imagine a better use for all that information, than to share it with the world as Schoen has. It's a first-class integration of the very modern with the vintage, the new in service of the old.  I laud his accomplishment; may it serve as an example for others.
Live or Memorex?  Nope, digital.  Gorgeous!
The only way to order 'The Book About My Bike' is directly from Niels Schoen.  He has a FaceBook page ( and to order, send an email to Niels direct ( with your mailing address and preferred payment method (IBAN or PayPal), and he'll sort you out.
The long-stroke Manx engine, assembled digitally
How many washers, and where do they go?  Pretty clear here...
A page detailing the Enots quick-release oil cap, with relevant part numbers and explanation of assembly and function.

Monday, December 14, 2015


Rarest of the bunch; the 3-wheel Austin-engine Brough Superior 'BS4', built for sidecar work.  This one is ex-Hubert Chantry, and subject of a famous period press test.  They can be ridden solo, but feel odd!  Note the driveshaft between the rear wheels.  Click here for my Road Test of this model.
I've heard rumors of this collection for years; a fine collection of Brough Superiors, including SS100s and a 1-of-8 Brough/Austin 3-wheeler, sitting outdoors in a south England yard, and slowly rotting away.  The owner refused to consider many offers for individual machines or the whole collection, preferring to watch them slowly return to earth than watch grass grow in their stead.
Looking a bit rough; a 1938 AMX-engined SS100, looking very complete, and completely rusty!
The rumors were recently confirmed by Ben Walker, who had just secured the rights to sell the collection of the late Frank Vague of Cornwall.  When he sent a 'for your eyes' photo of the machines in Vague's yard, I knew this was the collection so long spoken of.   So true, and so very sad!  But, as given the value of all Broughs, there's no doubt every one of them will be brought back to as-new condition in short order, keeping the likes of Dave Clark and other Brough restorers busy for many years to come!
The Brough collection as unearthed after 50 years collecting dirt and rust...
Ben Walker says, “This is one of the greatest motorcycle discoveries of recent times. A lot of mystery surrounds these motorcycles, as very few people knew that they still existed, many believing them to be an urban myth. There was a theory that they still existed somewhere in the West Country, but few knew where. Stored in barns for more than 50 years, the motorcycles were discovered whole, in parts, and some were partially submerged under decades of dust, old machinery parts and household clutter. This is the last known collection of unrestored Brough Superiors; there will not be another opportunity like this. Only eight four-cylinder machines were built, and the example in this collection is the final one to be re-discovered.”
1150s have shot up in value since I rode one successfully on the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball (with partner Revival Cycles maintaining the machine).  Still, there's probably wiggle room in the price for this 1938 1150 with plunger frame...expect to re-tube the frame and forks for any of these machines, and perhaps make new aluminum castings for certain parts. Obviously all new tinware!
Perhaps the most interesting machine in Vague's collection is the 3-wheel Brough Superior with a modified Austin 7 engine (the 'BS4'), one of 8 produced, and the last one to be positively identified [see my Road Test of a BS4 here!].  George Brough felt the 4-cylinder engine was the ultimate ideal for a motorcycle, and of course Honda proved him right 40 years after he began making one-offs with four pots.  The Austin-Brough was the only 4-cylinder BS produced in series, limited though it was; the others were the in-house sidevalve V-4 and 'Dream' flat fours, and a Motosacoche inline 4 scrapped when Bert LeVack died.  All of these machines still exist.  This newly discovered BS4 was the property of Hubert Chantrey, who rode it solo in the London-Edinburgh Trial, and was famous for riding his BS4 in reverse around Piccadilly Circus!
Bonhams will sell the collection next April 24th, at their Stafford Spring auction.  There are links to each machine below the bikes, if you're looking for price estimates...but I wouldn't put much weight on those!  Not a 'Brough guy'?  Well, there are two HRD-Vincent Series A twins at the same sale, and a Coventry-Eagle Flying 8 with KTOR's going to be one hell of a sale.
One of 3 SS80s on offer; this one a 1939 SS80 with plunger frame option, and Brampton girder forks. 

3 Incomplete Brough Superior 'kits' will keep the less well-heeled collectors happy; long term project anyone?  I've owned a few myself...there's no sin in a basket Brough.  This is a 1926 SS100 with the KTOR motor gone missing.
A 1936 SS80 project, with the AMC MX80 motor.  The Brampton girder forks, while the lowest Brough 'spec', actually give the best braking power of them all!
Last of the baskets; a 1937 SS80, missing its frame.  What man has made...
A 1938 Matchless-engined SS80 with Brough 'petrol tube' sidecar

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Friday, November 20, 2015


Shinya Kimura with the 'Spike', his much-modified Harley-Davidson '47 EL Knucklhead
The romance of the place is captured in the name, redolent of the invisible goals of speed.  El Mirage is nominally a town in the SoCal desert, nearest Palmdale, which is itself nearly nowhere, even though inhabited by many thousands.  Its raison d'etre is a dry lake bed, now bounded by the El Mirage Off-Highway-Vehicle Recreation Area, under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management.
Willy with a breed unique to the SCTA - the Belly Tank Lakester.  Built from a discarded aircraft fuel tank, this is a genre unique to dry lakes racing in SoCal.  This one used a Ford flathead V8 motor, and sounded amazing.
The lake bed is very nearly flat, with a cracked mud surface occasionally pockmarked by potholes, but with nothing of the inches-tall cracqueleure of Bonneville, nor its corrosive salt crust.  El Mirage lacks Bonneville's pristinely bizarre beauty, and its relative cleanliness - as vehicles pound the miles of dried dirt to reach the SCTA timing camp, clouds of sepia dust trail them, as it does the high speed vehicles racing across its surface.   The effect is dramatic and beautiful, but layers everything and everyone nearby with an ultrafine grit.  While some vehicles used air cleaners while racing, others take their chances gulping in the powder, and never need worry about bedding in their piston rings.
Alp Sungurtekin, who exceeded 175mph on his home-built pre-unit Triumph, featured previously on TheVintagent.
November 13th, 2015, became an infamous day for more nefarious reasons, but it was my first visit to the place, and I reveled in its spare beauty, and the fantastic characters who temporarily populate its puzzle-cracked earth. The goal was to explore, and take a few wet plate photos, which was accomplished.  As the racing is over a weekend, not a week as in Bonneville, there's no 'village' feeling, and the layout of disparate camps is chaotic, making introductions difficult.  Everyone is busy racing, and while very friendly, its hardly a relaxed place to take photos.  Thanks to the several people who took time for my work, I hope you enjoy the results. See more at
The full view of Willy's Lakester - a vision of a past Future, painted an unusual shade of mauve, supposedly a works Bugatti racing color
George Callaway, the 'Mayor of El Mirage', at his fantastic junkyard beside the dry lake.
Coming soon to Intersection magazine; a few shots of the Vintagent at work at El Mirage, thanks to photographer Gilles, captured here at George's junkyard, beside a familiar Renault
Alp's crew chief, Jalika, who betrays her former career as a fashion model
Shinya Kimura's Spike entier
Woody and his Aermacchi racer, emerging from chemical shadows... the Wet Plate process is unpredictable!

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Wednesday, November 04, 2015


A 1915 program for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, showing the Tower of Jewels, set with 102,000 'novagems' of Czech crystal, lit by 50 arc lamps.  Behind is the Rainbow Scintillator, the first use of searchlights for entertainment, as a cadre of Marines swung multi-colored lights in coordinated patterns at night.  Spectacle!
100 years ago, San Francisco was a new city. As with most cities, it was built atop older cities, and the terrific shaking and subsequent fire of 1906 was, while dramatic, merely the latest in a string of disastrous fires destroying the city, ever since the the former Spanish Mission outpost became a burgeoning port servicing the Gold Rush of 1849 (which is when my own family arrived).  The city was built not only over the ashes of its former self, but also the very ships which delivered thousands to the maw of Gold Fever.  Entire crews jumped ship to try their luck at mining, and the harbor grew a forest of masts from abandoned ships, an ironic contrast to the recently deforested hills and islands around the Bay.  Today, every new hi-rise downtown schedules a few months for archeologists to clear out the Clipper ship carcasses used as landfill for what was to become our downtown.
The PPIE almost finished - note no Golden Gate Bridge - that didn't go up for another 20 years. The bottom left of the photo shows The Zone, and clearly shows the scale of the open-topped Race for Life motordrome - huge!  The Tower of Jewels is at the top left...
The '06 Quake was different from previous disasters, as the city had an opportunity to establish building codes for earthquake safety, and reinvent itself as it saw fit.  My great-grandfather was a developer on the Van Ness corridor, the new artery from the Bay to City Hall, and built a few of the impressive reinforced-concrete auto dealerships which still stand, although few still sell cars.  Our family legacy included the first Ford dealership on the west coast, a lovely 4-storey concrete building with floor-to-ceiling industrial glazing, which I longed to inhabit in my post-college days.  But that's another tale.
The PPIE from the other direction, showing the color-coordinated exteriors of the buildings, a pink faux travertine made of a new plaster/marble mix.  Bernard Maybecks' Palace of Fine Arts is at right, and the only building still standing from the PPIE.
2015 is the Centennial year for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), and lots of attention has been focused on the Expo in local museums and books.  The enormous Exposition was built over the Harbor View neighborhood (now called the Marina), which was a squatter's tent camp on swampy marshland, just past the grazing pastures of Cow Hollow.  City fathers - notably our incredibly corrupt mayor 'Sunny Jim' Rolph - devised the genius plan to fortify the soil of Harbor View, and build an Expo on the site to celebrate the 1913 opening of the Panama Canal. Of course the Expo really celebrated San Francisco itself, and developers subsequently got rich on the land beneath the Expo, after it was torn down in 1916.  Hence the Marina district today, which swells with a tech-yuppie influx and is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town, regardless of its vulnerability to future earthquakes, due to its landfill foundation.
The start of it all - a postcard showing Joe Hall circulating on a 1913 Excelsior 7C-based board tracker, at the 90degree mark in the Race for Life at the 1915 PPIE
While researching an article for The Automobile magazine on two auto races at the PPIE ('Race Around the Rainbow Scintillator', which I'll publish on in December), I came across Laura Ackley's excellent book 'Jewel City', which contains a postcard of Joe Hill circulating a Wall of Death on an Excelsior racer  - which was news to me!  Here was photographic evidence of a a very early Wall right in my home town, in the middle of the PPIE.  Time to hit the library...
The exterior of the Race for Life concession in the middle of The Zone at the PPIE - quite a thrill for $0.10.  Note the plaster racers at the top of the facade, and the mural showing the cars at vertical.  One of the racers stands outside.  (Courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library)
Outside the central fantasy village of the PPIE - the 'Jewel City' of travertine and sparkling lights - was a funfair called The Zone, with dozens of concessions, rides, and attractions.  Within The Zone was the Race for Life, which according to fairground plans was a 40' diameter wooden 'two stage' bowl track, over which both cars and motorcycles sped.  Photographs show the wooden walls banking in 4 stages, the two widest sections at 78degrees an a fully vertical 90degrees, just below the spectator railing. While the Excelsior postcard is colorized and shows little detail, a never-published photo shows an Indian racer near the top of the Wall...the photo had been mis-labeled as a 'bicycle going at 90 degrees', and hadn't yet been digitized in their archives.  No wonder the image hadn't been discovered by the 'Net hounds; it pays to do a little footwork, and there are enormous photo archives at libraries and universities worldwide, waiting to be scanned.
A lovely c.1914 Indian board track racer with all chain drive, a 3-speed gearbox, and no starter pedals, here with its rider, and what looks like a 1913 Stutz 'white squadron' racer on a turntable outside the Race for Life concession. 
San Francisco Public Library archives also revealed the facade of the Race for Life, and a rough scale drawing of the layout.  Two postcards gave examples of the motorcycles used - an Excelsior ridden by Joe Hall, and an Indian, both ca.1914 machines, and both full-on board track racers.  The cars used appear to be c.1913/14 Stutz racers, and advertisements painted around the entry claimed the vehicles hit '100mph! Time it!'...which was of course nearly impossible with a stopwatch. There's no doubt the vehicles used in the Race for Life were capable of such speeds, being 'last year's racers', even though ~30mph is enough to keep a vehicle perpendicular.  Still, the thrill a genuine racing car or motorcycle speeding just beneath your feet feels like 'the ton' even today!  And counts for the enduring appeal of Walls worldwide.
From the grand plan of the PPIE, giving the scale of the Race for Life within The Zone at the PPIE.  The track looks to be 40' diameter, with a canvas roof in case of rain.  (Courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library)
The Wall of Death phenomenon is an outgrowth of board tracks used by bicycles, motorcycles, and cars, although it was cyclists who started canting their tracks to increasingly steep angles in the 1890s, as tracks went indoors to smaller venues, and banking was required.  Truly vertical bicycle tracks appeared by around 1900 - these were no longer for competition, and were strictly fairground attractions.  Fairground motordromes with cars and motorcycles appeared around 1910, and their tracks grew increasingly steep, with vehicles circulating at 60-70degree banking as a kind of miniature board track race, with coordinated tricks and choreographed 'races'.  1915 is generally cited as the origin date for a truly vertical, motorized Wall of Death, as such an attraction opened on Coney Island that year.
Likely the very same Indian racer as seen above, in circulation.  A lovely shot from 1915...
But not much happens on Coney Island in February, in fact the boardwalk and funfair are seasonal, opening in Spring, while over in California we enjoy mild weather and year-round the Race for Life, which opened on February 20th.  It seems likely the Race for Life predates the Coney Island attraction, and the documentation I've found from PPIE archives is more extensive than any other Wall of Death evidence from the era.  The Race for Life could well predate the Wall of Death, and be the true origin of today's legacy of excellent, traveling Walls, which still thrill spectators at shows around the world.
Inside the Palace of Machinery; a display of Excelsior bicycles and motorcycles...which must have had something to do with the Excelsior later seen on the Race of Life!
It wasn't just what was inside the fair, but who came.  This is Effie Hotchkiss and her mother Avis, who rode their 3-speed Harley-Davidson Model 11-F across the USA to see the PPIE, the first women to cross the country on a motorcycle.
Another of the motorcycles at the PPIE - a Dayton outfit.Subscribe here to in your email!