Updated: May 14
This is: an autobiography, a short course in modern social history, and mostly a half-century of the passion I've had for a special machine. If it's too long for you, well then at least check out the pictures!
In 1959 Triumph Engineering launched the new 650cc Triumph Bonneville T120. I was 7 years old and I thought it was the most beautiful motorcycle I'd ever seen. The name Bonneville came from the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. When I was a kid, that's where all the hot vehicles were sent to set land-speed records going in a straight line. The first Bonnie's 120 designation was because this bike achieved 120 miles per hour there.
By the time I reached puberty, in the mid-60's, the Bonneville had only gotten better looking, and a little more reliable. I came to realize that owning one of these would someday be the key to being popular and sought-after by women. Just read the first paragraph of the ad above for proof!
And not only that, but every entertainment idol I had as a kid had one of these beauties. Here is just a sample:
I mean, these guys just proved that I was right about what this motorcycle could do for me!
So in 1969 I finally got my driver's license at age 17. That meant I sorta knew how to drive a car (I lived in Manhattan and was the first person in my lineage to even have a driver's license). And no sooner did I have a license - Then Came Bronson!
Here was cool Jim Bronson riding around the country on his Harley Sportster (without a helmet) saving or educating people everywhere, for an hour every Wednesday night. That was clearly my calling as well.
But I certainly didn't know how to drive a motorcycle with that mysterious device called a manual transmission! To the rescue came our wonderfully kind neighbor Mr. Barish (I'm ashamed to say I don't remember his first name). He owned a 160cc Honda Dream, and he kept it in the basement garage under our building. He actually loaned me a set of keys and told me I could ride it around the garage as much as I wanted (underground City garages are pretty big) and figure out how to handle that clutch and those gears. Here was that beauty:
I spent hours after school riding and stalling that ugly thing up and down the aisles of our garage. Eventually I had to give the garage guy a few dollars to look the other way. Fortunately the Honda wasn't too noisy. With a lot of trial and error, and my new girlfriend Ellen Kaplan looking on (see, the spell was working already!), I started and stopped hundreds of times, eventually even getting into second gear. It finally clicked! I gave Mr. Barish back his keys and went looking for my Bonneville. Rude awakening for a 17 year-old whose only income was as a part-time sales clerk in Macy's: they were expensive! And I had to have a motorcycle. By this point I had figured out they were more than sexy - they were fun. So I settled for a brand new 1970 250cc Yamaha that I bought from Cam-Rod Motorcycles on West 52nd Street:
I found out what it felt like to really ride a motorcycle - not in the basement of a garage, but for real. There was absolutely no other feeling like it. My very first ride was from my apartment on East 19th street in Manhattan to visit my girlfriend Ellen at her summer bungalow at Rockaway Beach in Queens. I remember being very scared out-bound, but in heaven on the way back!
Years later I got a pilot's license and owned two Cessnas over a ten year period. Flying never felt as good as motorcycling. And you can see how cool I was in my US Army surplus T-shirt, belt and boots plus my white jeans! You can also see the hole in my left pants leg and my right elbow. Plus the missing right front turn signal and mirror - all the results of my first crash. Hey, I was only 18.
But the stars kept buying those real Bonnevilles. None of them were buying little two-stroke Japanese bikes.
I got a summer job making emergency motorcycle deliveries to and from film companies in NYC. It was very exciting. In the evenings I rode out to Far Rockaway to be with Ellen - still smitten with me, no doubt due to the motorcycle (which her mother wouldn't let her ride on).
I went away to college at Syracuse University. And of course I took the motorcycle up there with me since I couldn't bear to be without it AND Ellen. Freshmen weren't allowed to park a vehicle on campus, so I kept it in my dorm room (we had BIG elevators). My roommate Jim Alkon was not delighted, but he was a good sport about it.