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Talking Cafe Racers And Royal Enfields At Billy Joel’s Marvelous Motorcycle Show

Originally Posted: June 08, 2009

Colin M. Graham

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Billy Joel standing in front of a replica 1945 Harley Davidson Panhead Bobber that was just finished by 20th Century Cycles. Photos by Colin M. Graham and Christine Bellini

Sag Harbor - The streets of Sag Harbor echoed with the throaty sounds exuding from the exhaust pipes of a multitude of motorcycles whose riders brought their bikes out not just for the ideal riding weather, but for the amazing array of Billy Joel's bikes on display at the Christy's Art Center on Madison Street.

Motorcycle fans from all over came to enjoy the showing of some of Billy Joel's motorcycles this weekend.

In addition to two new Royal Enfield bikes sitting out front during the show, which opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday, the intersection of Main and Madison Streets were perpetually lined with motorcycles throughout the day as fans, friends and passersby out for a nice cruise stopped in to take a peek at some the new, vintage and custom built bikes that Joel has in his collection.

Of all the visitors to the show, none traveled as far as Mike Mendoza, the bassist for the band Twisted Sister, who happens to be a motorcycle aficionado and friend of Joel's and Rob Schneider,, owner of Lighthouse Harley Davidson in Huntington Station, who had traveled from a recent concert in Sweden with ZZ Top the day before. "I'm always down to support the cause." Mendoza said Saturday. "I've been on motorcycles for as long as I can remember, even longer than I've been in Twisted Sister, which I joined in 1978. I think the show is fantastic and I think its great for someone like Billy Joel to put this effort into the motorcycle community," he noted. "Having someone like him do all this work to make riding motorcycles acceptable does nothing but good for the motorcycling world as a whole."

"The motorcycle community is even tighter knit that the rock n' roll community," joked Schneider.

While Joel had some actual vintage bikes on display, some of the bikes were a combination of ground up builds designed to replicate the look of vintage bikes, as well as stock bikes that were accessorized with older parts. "There are a few ways you can get bikes like these. You can build them from scratch, you can modify an existing stock bike, which we did with my Harley Davidson Sportster and with the Springer Classic, or you can just take a new bike and accessorize it with old parts which is the simplest, fastest and probably cheapest way to do it. It depends on your budget and how far into it you want to go," said Joel on the second day of the exhibition.

Starting this weekend and for the next two weeks, Billy Joel will be showing 18 motorcycles from his vast collection.

"This military style Royal Enfield represents the quickest, cheapest way to do it. The bike actually comes stock looking like this: same color, same set-up. The only thing I did was swap out the seats, put an English style license plate on the front fender, swapped out the tank emblems, put an RAF military emblem on it, added an old military knife, General Montgomery's beret," he laughed. "Just a couple of custom touches that add to the vintage appearance of the bike, but the ground up builds are real works of art, everything on the bike is fabricated by hand."

Other than Harley Davidsons, the bikes made by Royal Enfield, a British motorcycle manufacturer now owned by a company based in India, were among the best represented in Joel's collection, mostly in the Café Racers section of the show. "This Café bike is a Royal Enfield as well, if you take a look, it's a stock Royal Enfield Bullet," said Joel. The only thing I changed on this was again, put a British plate on the fender, put a tank rack on it and swapped out the seat, other than that it's a stock bike."

Joel was on hand all weekend eager to talk to motorheads and fans about the work he's put into his collection of vintage and custom motorcycles.

As Joel explained, Café Racer bikes were the European equivalent to the 'choppers' popularized in American culture during the post war period. "What they would do in Europe with the Café Racers is they would set them up like a racing bike. They would put a fairing on it, swap out the tank for an elongated alloy tank, take the handlebars off and put on racing clip ons and move the foot pegs back so you'd be leaned way over the tank in a racing position," Joel explained. "That was the whole style of the Café Racers, which was the European version of the custom, bad guy bikes, whereas in America the guys who came back from the war would take Harleys and Indians and knock parts off them to make them hot rods and make them faster. In Europe they did the same thing except they didn't have Harleys and Indians, they had Triumphs and Motor Guzzis, BSAs, Nortons, Ducatis."

Motorcycle fans convened at the show, taking the opportunity to see the classic bikes up close.

Joel then proceeded to point out two of the rarer vintage bikes in his collection: a 1977 Café Racer style bike by Harley Davidson and a 1952 Vincent Rapide. "Harley Davidson actually tried to introduce a Café Racer style bike to the American market in 1977 and it didn't fly, people didn't get it. It's a beautiful bike and now it's very valuable because it was a very limited run and the 1952 Vincent Rapide is probably the most valuable bike here. They're as rare as hen's teeth and it was a very advanced bike for its time," Joel continued. "It broke all these speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. My wife and a friend of mine just bought that and the Ducati for me for my birthday, and I haven't even had a chance to ride them yet."

But most of the bikes Joel owns do get ridden, which was the impetus behind why he decided to remake vintage style bikes with new technology. "I either ride the Sportster, which is in the front as an everyday street bike or one of the Enfields. Those are character bikes and at 500cc's for around here it's fine. It'll go 80 downhill. But if I want to go on a long cruise I'll either take the Kawasaki, or the Honda Goldwing or one of the bigger Harleys so it depends on the purpose," Joel pointed out. But riding vintage motorcycles isn't always as nice as riding newer bikes, hence the rebuild process. "We're trying to promote our line, the 20th Century Cycles. If people want to replicate an old bike or if they want to build a new one or they want to take the bike that they have and customize it to look like a vintage bike, we can do that. That's why I'm trying to put a lot of these 20th Century Cycle placards explaining what the bikes are so people will look at it and say 'Oh, I get it.'

Motorcycle aficionados lined the intersection of Main and Madison Streets eager to get a peek at the Piano Man's motorcycles.

Joel goes on to explain that "people get confused because there really are real vintage bikes here and they go 'well that's an old bike, is this an old bike or are they new bikes?' Well yes, and no, and yes and no, and yes. They're old and they're new and they're new to look old. They're reliable, they're safe, they're comfortable, they're convenient and they work. Hopefully we'll be here [at the Christy's Art Center] for awhile."


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