Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Linda D. Cluxton
Antique motorcycles surround me. I see work stalls, all of which contain bikes in differing states of disassembly, some mere frames on wheels. Shelves line the walls where removed parts are carefully stored. Against the rear wall, I find a spotless wooden workbench displaying three engines bolted to assembly jigs. Remarkable to see the insides of these old power plants exposed, the grime of combustion cleaned and polished away, revealing the mechanical beauty underneath. Blaring music is absent; the workshop is calm. Tucked strategically behind an auto parts store, there is no walk-in traffic either. The air is scented with a blend of used motor oil, dust and cleaning solvents.
Halls Custom Vintage, or HCV, calls this shop home. It is owned and operated by Jake and Rob Hall, who specialize in the repair, restoration and modification of antique British motorcycles, most of which were manufactured before 1976.
Fuel tanks waiting for reassembly bear names such as BSA, Norton, Royal Enfield, Triumph, Velocette and Vincent. Motorcycles from these manufacturers dominated roads and tracks in the post WWII years. They ruled worldwide sales numbers for decades, until the late 1960’s when another country entered the fray. Led by Honda, the Japanese introduced cutting-edge automotive engineering to a market that was still selling motorcycles based on 20 year-old technology. This Asian breed of bike was ultra reliable, efficient and inexpensive.
One by one, the British manufacturers folded, victims of hubris and dogged adherence to engineering tradition. Their products were famously finicky, even when brand new; and by 1975, quality had degraded to the point that many bikes were totally worn out after just 2000 miles.
“These bikes were junk, even when new,” says Jake Hall. “British motorcycle companies were using manufacturing tooling that dated to before WWII, and they never had the money to improve. The machines couldn’t hold tolerances, so the parts really weren’t interchangeable. Each bike, and each engine, was hand assembled and tweaked at the factory…it makes restoring them very challenging.”
People sometimes become passionate about things they once owned or loved. As a way to connect with those memories from our past, and as careers progress and we can afford them, we collect some of the props — from Hepplewhite chairs to pink-haired Troll Dolls. Jukeboxes, lunchboxes and soda bottles eventually achieve cult status, alongside Barbie dolls.
Like popular music from the past, classic bikes are a touchstone to a rider’s salad days, those carefree high school or college years. Yes, old Brit bikes were tough to keep running, but they were also the best riding and handling bikes of the period. What the Japanese did for reliability, the British did for road holding and appearance. Jap bikes of the era had no funk, soul nor street cred’…a true collector would argue that to this day.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller, “Outliers — The Story of Success”, posits that most people of extraordinary talent are not born that way. On the contrary, most have, at one point in their lives, spent over 10,000 hours perfecting their craft. Rob and Jake Hall are a good example. Their father, Stuart, who loved restoring and riding British motorcycles invited his sons to join in his passion. As a result, the pair has a combined 46 years of experience in their field, yet the older of the two just celebrated his 30th birthday.
When he was six years old, Jake rode a small dirt bike on forest trails with his dad. Far from new, the bike needed mechanical attention on a regular basis. The Hall family rule was simple: if you want to ride it, you have to work on it. If it wouldn’t start, Jake had to figure it out, with Stuart’s help initially. If he got a flat, he was taught to stop, take out his tool kit, patch the tube and lever the tire back on. “There’s a Hall family legend that says at age three, I removed the cylinder head from a broken rototiller,” says Jake, “but I don’t remember that.”
Jake outgrew his motorcycle just as brother Rob, two years his junior, was big enough to ride. The bike was handed down to Rob, and the deal was the same: if you want to ride it, you learn to fix it when it breaks. Driven solely by their desire to ride, the pair fixed bikes to keep the fun going. After they outgrew their childhood mounts, they began to pick through their dad’s collection of non-running classic British Motorcycles.[quote]Jake: “Dad, I’d like to ride that ‘66 Triumph Tiger Cub of yours?”
Stuart: “If you can make it run, you can ride it.”[/quote]
The boys progressed from simple tire changes to carburetors, magnetos and eventually engine internals. As soon as one bike was being test ridden, the Halls would be working on their next bike project.
(article continues on page 2 and more photographs are at the end)