Mr. Mike Vils
Mike Vils might be known to our readers from his exploits on the Cannonball, or maybe from the Atascadero rides, or from his work with the Trailblazers. Here is a photo of him in Kitty Hawk before we left on that first Cannonball in 2010. His 1913 Excelsior had a host of modifications, which we’ll get back to further on the article.
Back in the stone age, Mike was building customs of all shapes and sizes in the SoCal scene. This is a photo of him and his wonderful wife Irma on the cover of Street Chopper 41 years ago. That bike was ridden and ridden over the next several decades, getting only a few changes (disc brake).
Contrary to his badass image, Mike is a big teddy bear –one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet on a motorbike. He’s always stopping to help guys, or painting or tuning machines. Mike is full of life and also full of stories, as often happens with good quality characters like him. His motto is “Ride Fast, Take Chances”, and he’s done just that on his 1913 Excelsior, or his JD Harley, or dirt bikes, flat track/speedway bikes, a modern V twin, and a multitude of customs over the years.
Over drinks the other night, he mentioned that in the old days there wasn’t the fracturing of the motorcycling scene that we have today. Guys might play around on a bobber one day, then ride dirt bikes the next. Builders would work on Brit machines as well as Japanese, new HDs or old Indians. But just like in everything else today, we now have specialization, for better or worse. But he’s still farting around on little speedway tracks, and riding a variety of machines on the road.
“Don’t wear the image if you can’t handle the action” -Mike Vils.
Mike spent some years working with Ed Big Daddy Roth, building and painting machines starting around 1967. Ed took a liking to the youngster and gave him the moniker Fass Mikey, which he is still called today.
Here are some pages from Ed Roth’s Chopper’s Magazine, later changed to Custom Bike Mag. The first image is Mike and his Grandma in the living room with a bike and pile of trophies.
Below are some signed photos from Russ Collins, Dick Mann, and Gary Nixon. Now is a good point to mention that Mike painted factory race bikes for a lot of the big guys in the 1970s. You might have seen the Yamaha has with the black and white paint that looked a bit like old 35mm film. He did that for Kenny Roberts, and a lot more too.
Mike and I played around a bit on the Cannonball at 40 mph, joking for some pictures and trying to make the best of the long, long days and unpredictable machine issues. His bike fouled a plug a mile after this photo, and mine broke the V belt pulley…
That Excelsior looks good. Mike built it and painted it himself of course. But after the first glance, you can see some details. The big rear disc brake is mounted up at the rim. The front brake was added due to worries about the car drivers across the USA.
Vils’ buddy Darrel Bassani made the pipes, and Mike is happy to report that they are “like jewelry”. Perfectly smooth on the inside… One of Mike’s stories is about when it was time for Bassani to move his shop, which happened every so often in the 1970s. Once the shop was empty and the floor was clean, he’d invite in a bunch of Class C heroes like #98 John Hagely and they’d have an impromptu ‘Minibike Nationals’, with hot shoe racing of little XR75 Hondas on the concrete.
The gas tank looks original, but it is brand new, and Mike made it a couple inches wider to hold more fuel for the long trip. You can’t see the special cams, pistons, valve work, tuned exhaust and other tricks that took the motor from the 1913 spec of 6hp to 25hp today. When I first met Mike, he had installed a NOS nitrous oxide system on the bike, just to see what would happen when he pushed the magic button. It didn’t blow up immediately, but the rear wheel had some trouble. When I pressed him for details, he mentioned that it all happened due to some bench racing with buddies. Everybody wanted to know if white rubber tires would leave a white mark on the road if you spun the tire. The best way to try that was to install “the juice.” Eventually the rear sprocket spun its threads right off the rear hub…
Rat Finks: Mike and Jeff Decker at the finish of the 2012 Cannonball.
At Death Valley one year, Mike won a drag race with an 80” Indian. Did the big bike run out of gas? Nobody knows the truth… Here’s a pic from Mike’s collection, taken just after he won the race.
Look closely at the lettering he applied to his Excelsior tank: