20 February 2020

Piano Man, Billy Joel, Loves the Sound of Old Motorcycles

Words: Roderick Eime. Images: Supplied

Everyone knows Billy Joel and his catchy tunes like “Piano Man” and “Uptown Girl”, but not everyone will know the best-selling singer-songwriter is a confirmed aficionado for classic motorcycles.

Tucked away in the sleepy Long Island, New York state village of Oyster Bay in a classic early 1900s storefront, is 20th Century Cycles. This otherwise unassuming white-washed building, across the road from the little town’s railway museum, houses a most considerable collection of motorcycles owned by the famous performer.

For a man who has made a fortune writing and performing some of the most memorable songs of the last century, he is just as comfortable discussing his passion for two-wheeled machines as he is his long list of hit songs.

Glancing over the museum floor, it is clear that the collection of around 70 bikes closely reflects Billy’s taste for motorcycles, assembled over more than 30 years. At a media event in his store, he is quoted as saying to the assembled media: “Choppers are dead. That movie .. Easy Rider .. that was the beginning of the end for the chopper.”

Triumph Thruxton 2005

Joking or not, you won't find any of those highly customised, brutish machines in Billy’s collection. Instead, the now 70-year-old prefers so-called ‘bobbers’ and ‘cafe racers’ and the more refined, retro machines of the mid-20th century. Plus there are some cruisers like Harley-Davidsons and stock standard machines too.

Moto Guzzis are clearly a favourite, so are BMWs, Indians, Triumphs, Ducatis and lesser-knowns marques like Vincent and BSA. The ground-breaking Japanese machines from the likes of Yamaha and Honda from the ‘70s are also on show.

“We’re promoting an aesthetic here (in the museum/workshop). I like the style from the ‘30s to the ‘60s,” says Joel, “We’ve put the whole collection here so that people can see what that whole era of bikes looked like.”

20th Century Cycles occasionally produces custom bikes to order. One famous ‘customer’ is Billy’s long-time music pal, Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen. The shop has made special, hand-built bikes for the fellow New Yorker including a Moto Guzzi and a Kawasaki, but most of the shop time is dedicated to maintaining the private collection.

This ’52 Vincent was built as a reliable daily rider. A BTH magneto, D Hills center stand and external breather system and fresh wiring make this a bike that can be used with regularity. (supplied)

The most valuable bike in the collection, Billy thinks, is his 1952 Vincent Rapide.

“It’s a beautiful British bike, very hard to find and very rare,” says Billy, “I don't even ride that bike. It just sits there like a coffee table!”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that riding motorcycles would be a hazardous pastime for a man who earns his very substantial living with his hands. In 1977, Billy bought his first bike, a Yamaha 400 Special but then in 1982 his career on the keyboard nearly ended. He struck a motorist who turned in front of him near his home on Long Island, landing him in hospital and totalling his new 1979 Harley-Davidson XLCR.

“The impact pulverized the bone in my left thumb and pulled my right wrist out of its socket,” said Billy, “I’m bleeding, my hands didn’t work, and a police officer asks me for my license. So, I told him to pull my wallet out of my pocket. He looks at my license, then yells to the woman, ‘Hey, lady, you just hit Billy Joel!’”

This now rare ‘cafe racer’ from the Milwaukee factory was not one of H-D’s highlights, but the 1000c V-Twin has nevertheless found affection with Billy and he located a replacement machine for his collection.

Customisations typically involve bringing older classic bikes up to modern and spec and, conversely, making newer machines, look vintage.

1982 'Retro' Heritage (supplied)

“Some of these are brand new bikes, but we like to make them look like they’re from the ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s,” says Billy.

Alex Puls is Billy’s chief mechanic at 20th Century Cycles.

“For example, we’ve taken two new Harley-Davidsons and make them look like the famous ‘knucklehead’ machines from the ‘30s and ‘40s,” says Puls, “and that sort of symbolises exactly what we’re doing here.”

If you are visiting Long Island, you are invited to drop by 20th Century Cycles, grab a T-Shirt and see the always expanding collection for yourself.


20th-Century Cycles is located at 101 Audrey Ave, Oyster Bay, NY 11771.

29 December 2019

When Harley-Davidson copied BMW

Those not intimate with the history of Harley-Davidson would be forgiven for thinking this very unusual Milwaukee machine was built on the other side of the Atlantic - and by those with whom America was then involved in a deadly conflict.

When the US first came face-to-face with battle-hardened Germans in the deserts of North Africa, they took a licking. Their soldiers were out-fought, their machinery outclassed and their generals out-witted.

One of the many things that caught the attention of US military planners was how the German equipment performed in the harsh environment of Tunisia and one of those machines was the horizontally-opposed twin-cylinder BMW motorcycle.

The US Army then requested an alternative to the larger, heavier V-Twin WLA, the motorcycle H-D supplied to the US military at the outset of the war.

During 1942-43, a near-copy of the more nimble BMW R71 was quickly built with the same format in 740cc including twin carburettors, the all-important shaft-drive, foot-operated four-speed gearchange and a hand-operated clutch.

Around 1000 were delivered but the US-version proved unreliable and expensive and plans for a run-on civilian version was shelved. By this time it was clear the 4WD Jeep was the most practical and versatile personal transport.

A rare H-D XA at Harley-Heaven Sydney during bike night (RE)

There are just a few in private hands and these come on the market only seldom. An original example was sold at auction in Melbourne in 2013, fetching just shy of $20,000. Restored examples sold in the US have reached double that figure.

09 December 2019

Motorised curiosities: The Eyre Peninsula railcar

To speed up passenger services on Eyre Peninsula, a surplus SAR-owned Fageol road bus was converted in 1931 to run on narrow gauge rails and sent to Port Lincoln. Although a bit rough-riding, it was significantly faster than the previous Mixed trains and hence well received.

Three additional Fageol buses were then converted, and between them the four provided all passenger services on the Division. Lightweight trailers were built for the Fageols to accommodate the large volume of parcels also carried on the railcar services.

The conversion involved the replacement of the front wheels and axle with a small bogie and the fitting of flanged wheels to the single rear axle. A toilet compartment was also installed. The Fageols were well-known for their uncomfortable ride, a result of their conversion to rail with a single rear axle. Many passengers' anecdotes mention “square wheels”!

Because of their road bus origins, locals began referring to the railcars as buses, and the name stuck. Years later, people would still say they were going into town “to meet the bus”, even when the Fageols had been replaced by the larger Brill railcars. The last Fageol ran in 1961.

The old passenger terminal at Port Lincoln is now an excellent museum. (source)
Source: Port Lincoln Railway Museum