Classic Beginnings

By Dan Bockmier

Who knows what it is that causes a person to fall into the embrace of classic motorcycling? Is it a penchant for the mechanical coupled with a sense of nostalgia? Perhaps the spirit of adventure and romance conjured up by some defunct motorcycle manufacturer's advertisement? Could it be the sculpture like beauty of these mechanical time machines that so inspires? Maybe just dumb luck and circumstances of time and place?

For me the answer is all the above. In fact, I can even expound upon the exact moment and geographic spot I became smitten. My classic bike ground zero was located across the street from Christy Park at 6115 Gravois Avenue in St. Louis Missouri, USA. There, in a small, unassuming brick storefront, could be found the wonderful world of Motorsport and Lee Cowie. It was 1973 when I first rode down to Lee's shop piloting an old Matchless, that had practically fallen into my lap.

To set the stage for this story of how one's life can turn on seemingly insignificant events, I need to mention I was just a teenager at the time, who knew nothing about motorcycles, other than I wanted one in the worst way. That summer, my best pal Mark would borrow his big brother's second-hand Honda 305 and travel the countryside on those divine warm days when school was out, gas was cheap and spare time abundant. At some point Mark urged me on to the back and off I went unwittingly into an addiction of all things with a motor and two wheels. It soon occurred to me that if it was that much fun as a passenger, it must be fabulous to be at the controls.

One afternoon that same summer I was about my duties at the local filling station, when a stranger drove up to the pumps and asked “is that car over there for sale?”. “Well, that car is mine and anything is for sale at the right price”, I answered precociously. This fellow was in the neighborhood looking for an MG that was listed in the classified ads but mistakenly thought my Austin Healey Sprite might be it. He went on to mention that he had a motorcycle to trade, at which point I was all ears. After a tad of negotiation my Healey was gone and I found myself with a Matchless 650 twin motorcycle plus $100 cash.

I had never heard of a Matchless before that transaction. I was slightly anxious as I combed the phone book to find there were few resources available for spares, since Matchless had been out of business for several years. Still resolutely enthusiastic about this new machine, I began dialing every motorcycle dealer listed, hoping someone had a few leftover bits or at least a lead or two on who to call next. Thus it was that I discovered the sole proprietor motorcycle dealership in South St. Louis named Motorsport.

When I rode up to the address and parked at the curb I instantly felt the aura of the place and was curiously at ease. This was not a dealership swarming with unctuous salesmen and decorated with colored lights or banners. No this was a far different place and it was crammed with exotic machines whose brands I'd never heard of. Familiar was the name of Norton but I had never seen a Bultaco, Greeves, Mondial, Ducati, Moto Guzzi or a Velocette. Even more striking was a pre-war Cotton parked in front that turned out to be one of Lee's regular rides to work. At the time, I had already discovered the enjoyment of small over-seas cars, but this was a far more eye-opening and profound world of mechanized delight I had just stumbled onto.

Upon greeting me for the first time, Lee strode quickly out to the street to examine what had brought me there. He was a tall, slender man wearing a Norton T-shirt, khaki pants and a boyish smile. After kneeling down to inspect my engine number, his eyes twinkled with one of those I-know-something-you-don't-know looks. Then with an infectious grin he declared I had a 1960 model G12 CSR, an especially fine motorcycle but I needed to do something about those awful ape-hanger handlebars that had been fitted by the previous owner. I was putty in his hands. In retrospect it seems from that point forward I must have spent every spare minute I had at his shop, studying all the new and used bikes while longing to own or ride them. Like a book lover discovering the library, I had discovered my sanctuary.

That was many years ago now, yet there it was that I began my love of classic bikes and a longtime friendship with Lee Cowie. I moved away from St. Louis a few years later, but continued to drop by the shop when I would visit my home town, until one year in the early eighties I returned to find Lee had closed the Motorsport dealership. He had transitioned into a motorcycle publications distributor and moved out to the country with his wife Mary and young family.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that not long after, my passion for classic motorcycling went into hibernation for quite a few years, taking a backseat to family, work and home obligations. I still owned a motorcycle and a scooter, but they had atrophied into mere conveyance. That is before one middle-aged day I heard the “some day is today” siren's song and decided once again to eagerly engage my interest in classic motorcycles. I was utterly delighted to renew my acquaintance with Lee, under the auspices of  obtaining a magazine subscription, and filled his ears with the story of my newly acquired Norton Commando. I found that Lee and Mary were well and had developed the publications business into quite an enterprise, plus they'd become vintage glider enthusiasts in their spare time.

No longer do I travel to St. Louis with much regularity, but in 2007 I found myself there and made a point to accept an invitation from Lee and Mary to stop over. They are situated on a splendid, rural piece of earth, not far from an air strip, naturally, where they made me feel right at home. Their hospitality even included a ride on Lee's 1947 Norton International. Oh how I reveled at the sound of the Brooklands can, with my shirt flapping in the breeze and the birds scattering across the sky. I can't begin to express how completely enjoyable the visit was and how my memory of those heavenly days at the shop on Gravois were recalled and new memories were created while I sped along the back roads of Missouri aboard Lee's “Eric Oliver Special”. I will forever be in Lee's debt for opening the world of classic motorcycles to me and all the days of enjoyment they have subsequently brought. How fortunate I was to meet him that summer day in '73.