Interview with Don Danmeier
While I personally spend a lot of time thinking about the technology of old bikes, there is no denying that it is the PEOPLE who are into these things that keep the hobby going, allowing us to enjoy that technology and beauty and whose direct efforts allow us to keep the fun activities happening. Everybody who is paying attention has their own list of Heroes, and for many people in the Brit bike circle, Don Danmeier is on their list. I’ll start my series of Hero Interviews with Don…
all photos courtesy of DD
Don Danmeier is who I’ll call the ‘Godfather of BritBikes’ here in Northern California. Over the past 25+ years, he has done a tremendous amount of work to promote our hobby. Don has been instrumental in the Clubman’s show to start the season every April, the All-British Ride which closes the year every November, and several rides/rallies/shows during the months in between. In addition to his work with the various events and clubs, he and his better half Shirley ride their bikes all around the world, with large annual mileages AND restore and maintain some great bikes. All of us CA Brit bikers are indebted to him…
OcchioLungo: Don, tell us about your involvement with the BSA club of N. California (BSAOCNC). What club positions have you held over the years? What were you responsible for?
DD: Well, I founded the Club back in 1985. I had recently bought my Lightning, and it annoyed me that there was no local BSA outfit to ride and socialize with, as was the case with the other clubs I belonged to at the time (Ariel and Norton). I kicked it off by printing membership applications, and sending them to everyone locally who belonged to the UK club – Tom Fyfe (now deceased) knew most of them. I also distributed them at one of Dick Mann’s dirt days, out at Sand Hill Ranch. It just took off from there. We now have about 500 members. The essential part of that was getting a newsletter out, and I was committed to a monthly issue.
I was the club’s Editor for the first 17 years. Initially, I was a combination band leader/treasurer/newsletter editor; we really didn’t have any officers. We incorporated the club in the mid-nineties, after which I served as Vice President for a while, Editor, and chairman of several committees. I’m still on five committees, but am resigning my chairmanships on two, due to the increasing need to devote my time to the one I have primary responsibility for: the 2014 BSA International Rally, which will be hosted by our club.
Photo of Don at the Clubman’s show by Craig Howell
OL: What is the history of the Clubman’s show?
DD: About a year after the BSAOCNC was founded, we saw the demise of the only local show, which had been staged by the AMCA guys in the East bay. The BSA guys recognized that that left a sort of cultural gap around here, and thought “We could do that”. My bright idea was to make our Show inclusive of all the other British one-make clubs, because not all of them had any organizational presence or planned activities in the Bay area (e.g. AJS/Matchless, Royal Enfield, etc.) – hence the “Clubman’s” moniker. The concept of “All-British” meant that it would have a distinctive theme and identity.
I canvassed all the known British bike clubs and asked for help in funding the initial Show. Each contributed the requested $100, which they got back from us afterward (much to their surprise). The balance of the financing came out of three sets of private pockets. After that, the Show became self-financing. We wanted to engage the other clubs in the activity of the Show, and offered each of them free space to fly their flags and otherwise make a public presence, in exchange for providing judges. We still do. In addition, we usually request one of the clubs to organize the “Morning After” Ride on the following Sunday.
Continuing the idea of engagement, from the first we have identified a specific marque as the featured attraction. This gets the respective one-make club a chance to be an integral part of the event.
We’ve also raffled off a bike each year. By the third year, we had progressed beyond a cosmetic makeover of the bikes, to full restoration. Currently we have three in the pipeline. For our 25th anniversary Show in 2012, we’ll be giving away a BSA Gold Star.
There was a time when all the planning and execution was done by a small, core group of members. I can remember many nights when I sat up in my motel room on the night before the Show doing paperwork, assigning tasks, running over check-lists, etc. Now the Show Committee handles the organizational work, and coordinates a crew of about 80 volunteers who make the event what is today.
OL: What is the history of the All British Ride every November?
DD: I turned 50 in 1990. But anticipating that, I wanted to avoid a “surprise” party, or anything like it. Shirley asked me what I’d like, and I figured “What could be better than wallowing around in a gaggle of motorcycles?” So I threw my own party, and the price of admission was: attendance on a British bike (there’s that “theme” thing again) and completion of a ride with me through the country. I think we had about 35 riders. The next year, there was a lot of interest in another, so it was dubbed the “Second Annual 50th Birthday party and All-British Ride”. Initially we held the parties at our house, but when we outgrew that, I rented Stafford Lake Park. When the County blind-sided me by doubling the parking fee a few years later, we moved it to the Marin French Cheese Factory. After the “Tenth Annual 50th” and ten years of funding it myself, I gave it up, but the BSA club stepped in and has run it since then, albeit with an admission charge to cover costs. I still plan the rides and judge the bikes. The judging criteria are completely subjective and arbitrary, and since the adoption of responsibility by the Club, we no longer have attractive, scantily clad young ladies presenting the awards. [also check Gold Star Ron’s page for info. –Ed.]
I like to think that the All-British Ride completes, as the Show begins, the major motorcycling calendar of events for the British riders each year.
OL: How many bikes have you restored over the years?
DD: I’m on my fifth ground-up, total restoration. There have been many more “makeovers” and also “renovations”, where I’ve rescued bikes from a certain death and put them back on the road. Many of those were sold off.
OL: How many do you currently have in your shop/collection?
DD: Thirty something, if you count the two Ariels in pieces there in the back.
Don’s only non-British attempt: Shirley’s Indian
OL: What were some of the biggest challenges during your restorations?
DD: Finding Indian parts. I restored an Indian for Shirley that took 15 years. I’m not connected to the Indian Old Boys Network, but eventually it all came together. I started with a frame and an engine. The bike is a 1952 “vertical twin”, of which I think 452 were made. Acquisition of other bikes for myself along the way didn’t exactly speed things up.
The attempt to get the paint just right on my Square Four took forever. I painted that thing seven times, and for the eighth I stripped it and did the sheet metal in lacquer, which I knew something about. Modern paints and I just don’t mix. Now I just farm out the paintwork. By the way, do you know how many parts on a late Ariel Square Four require paint? Fifty-eight. Trust me.
Don’s Ariel as it looks today:
DD: The most problematic had to be the Indian. The easiest was my 1970 Royal Enfield – once I had the engine parts ready, it went together and into the bike with one night’s work. That bike, and my Rocket Gold Star, are awfully hard to beat in the looks department. But the one I have the strongest emotional ties to is my Ariel Square Four. I met it in 1964, bought it in 1973, and restored it in 1990. It will be the last thing pulled from my clammy little claws at the end of the road.
My Norton Commando is probably my most practical bike, but for sheer glee, my top two are the Gold Star and the Black Shadow.
OL: What do you think is the future of the old bike movement in N. California? Any opinions on the costs, age of owners, club participation, show vs go, etc ?
DD: There’s a lot of talk about whom the folks will be that succeed us in keeping old bikes alive and well. And that is usually grounded in the fact that most current aficionados were around when their bikes were built, or when they were first sold. My opinion is that old bikes will survive us just as old cars have. How many guys in the old car culture were around when the brass era was in full flower? Are those cars disappearing? Not likely.
The beauty of the old bike life here in Northern California is that we have actual roads to ride on, not just freeways. I think that’s why our local club scene is so active, and will continue to be. There maybe some consolidation and mergers down the road, but that talk has been around a long time and hasn’t resulted in anything drastic just yet.
OL: What advice do you have for a person who wants to get started in the old bike hobby?
DD: Get to know some guys who are already there. There is nothing like networking to build the connections you need to source information, skills and parts. Usually, the best way to achieve that is by joining one of the clubs. The payoff there is that what you get out of it will be social as well as technical. Having fun at it is a motivator. The clubs are the way to get that.
OL: What advice do you have for the folks that have been around for a while? What should the senior guys in the hobby be doing, and for what reasons?
DD: There’s an awful lot of knowledge out there that was never printed in Owner’s Manuals. It’s being carried around in the little gray cells of our senior motorcyclists. Some of it winds up in print (club newsletters are a primary source), but a lot is being lost. On the other hand, the guys who have it are not usually inclined to record it. I’d like to see more of that.
Secondly, I think we ought to find ways to engage the younger set. Their biggest obstacle is the lack of money. Thankfully, there are plenty of “project” bikes available for next to nothing, but not all fathers are motoring mentors. Once again, I think the club scene has great potential in this regard. One of the things we’ve done in the BSAOC is create the category of Associate Judge for our Show, to provide a hands-on training ground for younger folks or those new to the movement. It costs nothing.
OL: Do you have a list of your favorite bikes? Is it organized by A) how they look or B )how fast they go or C) rarity, D) technical complexity, or E) etc?
DD: My favorite bike at any given moment is usually the one under my butt at the time. I just like vintage bikes in general, and British ones in particular. My personal stash is purposely limited to British “last editions”, primarily to provide some rationale to the collection, and secondarily to keep me from going wild every time a bargain shows up. I think the variety of ideas represented by the bikes that came out of the British industry is endlessly fascinating.
OL: What bikes would you like to own/ride/restore someday that you don’t currently have access to?
OL: What were your favorite rides/rallies that you have attended thus far?
DD: One of my perennial favorite rides is the BSA club’s North Coast Ride. All of the local and regional rallies are fun, but the International Rallies top the list. There is simply nothing like them. Shirley and I have attended twelve, plus four of the INOA (Norton) and five of the Velo rallies, which are primarily North American events.
Old Reliable. Silverstone, UK, 2008
OL: How many countries have you ridden in?
DD: Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Spain (all via BSA); UK (five times, including the IOM four times; via BSA and Norton), New Zealand (three times, once on a rented BMW! twice on the BSA), Australia (BSA and Vincent), Canada (BSA, Velo and Norton), and Mexico (dirt rides only, via BSA). We’ve crossed the USA five times (BSA and Norton), and have traveled through every state in the lower 48 except North Dakota and Delaware. We’ll pick up North Dakota on the way to New York on the Vincent next year. Delaware, maybe not.
Longest ride? From here to Springfield, Massachusetts (via Montreal) and back, in 2006. We put another 10,000 miles on the old Lightning.
OL: Any good stories you want to share about crashes or other negative experiences regarding old bikes?
DD: Crashes are never good. I’m sitting here waiting for a surgical appointment for the 4th try to fix a foot/ankle injury resulting from a dual-sport get-off up in Lake County in 1994. I was passed by a buddy riding the same make/model that I was on, and I just couldn’t let that be, could I? But my front wheel hit a tree root, and down I went. I landed on the bike, which landed on my leg, which was attached to my foot at a biologically incorrect attitude beneath the bike.
I also had a bad experience in 1995, when I went to Palm City, Florida to pick up a bike I’d bought from a guy down there. I rode it across Florida to Shirley’s parents’ place. The day after that, I was on the way to Daytona (I’d entered it in the vintage show) when I plowed into the rear door of a Pontiac that had pulled out of a side road in front of me. That one separated my pelvis, and cost ten days in the hospital there before I was fit enough to air-mailed back to California, stretched out flat in First Class. The bike was totaled. The insurance company gave me two grand more than I’d paid for it. I bought it back from them for $100, and one of my BSA club buddies who was racing that week trucked it back home for me afterward. It’s one of the two Ariels that need to be completed that I mentioned. All the bits have been straightened and refinished except for the frame. Three frame shops have tried and given up trying to straighten it. Luckily, I have a spare frame with the correct serial number sequence that I had brought home with another bike from Pittsburgh in 1990.
In 2002, I blew the rear tire on my Douglas, which pitched me into the ditch out in west Marin. No serious injuries, but they kept me in the hospital overnight because it was said I’d been sitting by the side of the road talking to people after that, and I had no memory of it. That one mangled every piece of sheet metal on the bike, except for the toolbox and the chainguard. So I had a perfect excuse to give it a pretty complete “makeover”: new exhaust, upholstery, tires, etc. My body man/painter managed to straighten all the original stuff; how, I don’t know. He’s a whiz.
And in 2005 I blew another tire, that time on the Goldie, with Shirley aboard, on the way home from Napa. Another instantly-deflated tire, tank-slapper and pitch into the ditch. I got a bit of road rash on one knee, but Shirley suffered a broken ankle. The bike wasn’t badly hurt. I replaced the exhaust system and kick-start and shift levers. It’s a wonder Shirley didn’t replace me.
There were a couple of less traumatic get-offs, one in the ‘70s, one in the ‘80s, and come to think of it, both involving my Trident. I’ve fallen off in the dirt many times, mostly in Mexico, but I don’t think dirt drops count, so they? Everybody does that.
OL: How many clubs to you belong to?
DD: Twenty-one, if the AMA qualifies as a “club”, and I don’t think it does.
OL: How did you get started playing with old bikes? What was your first (old) bike?
DD: I was actually a “car guy”, having been raised in Southern California during the ‘50s. I’d had a Cushman at the age of 14, but sold it and bought my first car at 15. By the time I got married, I’d gone through a series of street rods, each quicker than the one before, and had a good time running on Southern California drag strips. But the marriage deal, and my goal of returning to school to get my degree, meant that the Olds-powered dragster being built out in the garage had to go. Two of my bachelor room-mate buddies without enough money bought it, by throwing in a 1948 Triumph. What an eye-opener that was! It was actually a ’48 rigid bobber, with a warmed-over 1958 engine (Harmon-Collins cams) that accelerated like a scalded cat. It had the then-requisite high bars, but also twin high pipes, and no silly frills (such as a headlight, horn or a front fender). Geezus, was that thing fun. And it took up so little space! That was when a thought popped into my head that later proved hard to shake: “Just think how many of these would fit into the space in the garage needed for only one car?”
Don and Shirley in Calais France, boarding the ferry for Dover
OL: Any opinion on the resurgence of bobbed Triumphs? How about modern Hinkley bikes?
DD: I’m all for it. Look what it did for me! Besides, there are adequate numbers of correctly restored Triumphs in museums and private collections to preserve history for posterity. Another consideration is that used bikes and basket cases are relatively plentiful, and therefore cheap. Look, the Brits built about 60,000 Commandos, 90,000 unit-construction BSA twins, but 750,000 Triumphs. An old Triumph is a great “starter” bike, and there are gobs of aftermarket folks out there only too willing to provide parts and accessories.
For some guys, the Hinckley Triumphs are an easier proposition and in a way simpler. You just go out and buy one, and presto, instant gratification. The Bonnevilles are increasingly popular as customs, and besides being readily available, they have an under stressed engine with lots of room for performance tweaking. It could even be cheaper than starting with a Meriden Triumph, but on the other hand I know of at least one being built here in the Bay area that’s had well over 60 large invested in it so far, and it ain’t finished yet.
OL: Is there any bike that you have absolutely no interest in riding/owning/restoring, etc?
DD: Not many. Hell, I’ve built two Norton Electras. Actually, any bike is interesting to me, except choppers, the point of which I guess I’ve never figured out. I’ve just made it a point to focus my attention one strata of the bike scene.
OL: What is the worst basket case project that you have ever completed?
DD: That bleedin’ Indian. A close second would be the Rudge I’m into now. Everything was knackered, and I’m not done yet.
OL: Any good stories you want to share about positive experiences regarding old bikes?
DD: Well, apart from falling off so damned many times, it’s all been positive. My biggest charge has come from riding with a group of folks, say through the Sierra Nevada mountains, and realizing that that they’d probably never have met each other, much less enjoy such a good time, if hadn’t been for the good old BSAOC. That’s been enormously gratifying.
OL: What are you most proud of with regards to old bikes? (BSAOC, Clubmans, All Brit, a particular restoration, climbing a particular hill or doing some long ride, etc?).
DD: See above. Same reward applies to the Show, the All-British Ride, etc.; it all follows from the success that the Club has been.
VMCC Rally, Isle of Man, 2002