Any time I’m in an area just “exploring” for the fun of it .. I’m often amazed by little “golden nuggets” I find. Much like the excitement an old prospector must have felt when he’s panning in a muddy stream, when all of a sudden his life is stunned with wonder and awe. He’s found himself at the proverbial “fork in the road”, and he’s faced with a choice. Or rather, given the opportunity to make what very well could be a life-altering decision: “Keep searching or quit while you’re ahead”.
For the true prospector .. there’s not much of a decision. He’s already addicted .. so he can’t wait to experience that next gold “rush”. Interesting play on words .. or maybe just my interpretation for the masses who drove their wagons West in search of their fortunes. The similarities between the true “adventurer” and that old prospector are probably seldom discussed. So let me give you my two-cents worth and you can decide for yourself if I’m just an old stoned-out biker or my thoughts actually have engaging merit.
I’ve often commented on the deep, spiritual exhilaration I get when a mere visual sight, like the Grand Canyon or Beartooth Pass, makes the hair stand up on my arms and I get that “chicken skin” rush. I imagine, it’s just like the miner did when he saw that nugget in the pan. You never forget it .. and the sheer recollection of that memory brings it all back at any point in time. So just like the miner has to keep diggin’ .. I have to keep searching. And every time a location is re-visited, there’s always something “new” about it .. and the exhilaration is just as rewarding as the very first time. Wait a minute .. did I get sidetracked .. am I talking about sex again? There I go again .. every 3.5 seconds it seems. Naaaw .. I’ll never grow up .. don’t care to. Too many “near-death experiences” to change my mantra .. “I want it all, and I want it NOW!” I’m a rocker from way back .. and when I first heard that line in a Queen song it just struck a nerve. Guess I’ll take that to my grave.
Back to my “find”. I tend to do this a lot, don’t I? Let’s just call it my “dementia” and get over it .. I’ll get there, and we’ll eventually end up where I intended. I often check my laptop for events and points of interest, museums, etc. along the way. So as I’m turning over every rock in the Southwest, I run across an article about the Solvang Motorcycle Museum, 320 Alisal Rd, in Solvang, California. It’s north of Los Angeles and southeast of Santa Barbara on Hwy 246. And though I’ve been to numerous motorcycle museums in the US and Europe, what caught my attention in the announcement was a new addition to the Solvang Museum’s collection. On display for the very first time .. an original “Crocker”. I’d never even heard of a Crocker, but I would soon be so intrigued that I had to go find this “nugget”.
With a little research, I discover that Al Crocker founded Crocker Motorcycles in 1936, after spending 20+ years honing his skills engineering and designing bikes for Indian. Al and his former foreman at Indian, Paul Bigsby, knew they had the muscle and know-how to give the competition a serious run for their money. When Crocker introduced their first hand-built speedway racer bikes, they flat-out killed the competition, not just sweeping the boards .. but setting new standards for performance and quality that far exceeded Harley-Davidson, Indian and everyone else for years to come.
They reigned as the baddest bikes around until 1942, when the company folded, unable to support itself due to a slow build time, material shortages brought on by the war, and an economic downturn. Incredibly, only around 100 bikes were ever produced .. but the legend and fervor lives on .. with the Crocker being among the rarest and most coveted motorcycles in the world to this day. Every single Crocker was hand built and custom tailored to the buyer’s specific wishes. They could choose color, degree of chrome trim and gear ratio displacement. The lengthy production time behind the quality of each engine is, undoubtedly, the reason why so few were ever built and their value soared.
At the MidAmerica Auctions motorcycle auction in January 2007 in Las Vegas, a 1941 Crocker big tank (3 gallon cast aluminum fuel tank) motorcycle sold for $230,000. At the Gooding & Co. auction in 2006 in Chandler, a 1931 Crocker 61 sold for $236,500. At the Bonhams & Butterfield 2006 auction in New York, a 1937 Crocker “hemi-head” V-Twin brought $276,500, and at the 2006 auction of Bator International in California a 1939 Crocker 61 cubic-inch side valve model sold for $200,000.
Crocker introduced motorcycle design innovations that set his V-twin ahead of Harleys and Indians of the mid 30’s and 40’s. The transmission could withstand incredible amounts of torque. The beautifully engineered three-speed transmission, coupled with a unique proprietary engine of Crocker’s own design laid shame to anything that dared cross its path. Featuring overhead valves, Crocker’s engine was released to the public ahead of Harley’s venerable “Knuckle Head” with more than enough horsepower to keep it ahead of the Harley crowd. The Crocker’s zero to sixty mph first gear score murdered all competition. The hemi head equipped stock machines peaked at 60hp propelling the factory produced, stock bikes, to speeds in excess of 110 mph. Even hopped up bikes couldn’t come close.
At 3.25″ Bore and 3.625 Stroke, the 61 cubic inch engines were almost square. Cylinders were set at 45 degrees apart. The compression ration was rated at 7:1 on the most machines but was known to go at least to 11:1 on some specials. The machine was put together with customizers in mind, too. The cylinder walls were a full 3/8-inch thick to allow for over-boring. This led to the creation of some big-bore Crockers over 90 cu.in. that could blow off anything in their way.
So confident was Crocker with this magnificent machine that he offered to refund the full purchase price ($600) to any buyer who was beaten by a rider on a factory stock Harley or Indian bike. No refund was ever given!
Virgil Elings, owner of the Motorcycle Museum, received his PhD. in Physics from M.I.T. He went to Santa Barbara to teach physics at UCSB, and subsequently developed the first graduate program in Scientific Instrumentation. He co-founded Digital Instruments and became the world’s leader in design and manufacturing of Scanning Probe Microscopes, the first scientific instrument to actually “see” individual atoms. His business became so successful that the University requested he “sever his ties to Digital Instruments”. Needless to say he quit teaching, and his business became so successful that he retired after ten years. He bought a home in the Santa Ynez Valley and additional business property, called Solvang Village Square, in Solvang, CA.
He decided to open a motorcycle museum as an afterthought, when he realized it would be a great place to store some of his rare motorcycle collection. Prior to this, he kept his bikes in his garages, living room, family room, bedrooms, offices, and wherever else he could find space. He opened the museum to the public in March 2000. Visitation is by appointment only, and after I called to schedule a date and time, a young lady met me at the door and allowed unlimited viewing time and all the pictures I could take. Every motorcycle in the museum is from Virgil’s private collection, which spans over a period of 20-some years. The collection is quite broad, with an emphasis on racing motorcycles since he and his son were involved in racing, both motocross and road racing.
At the time I was there, he had over 95 rare motorcycles, 1904 to 1990. Makes included: Ariel, AJS Benelli, BMW, Britten, Brough, BSA, Buell, CZ, Ducati, Excelsior Manxman, FN, Gilera, Harley Davidson, Henderson, Honda, Indian, Jawa, Matchless, Maico, Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta, Nimbus, Norton, NSU, Moto Parilla, Sunbeam, Suzuki, Thor, Triumph, Velocette, Vincent, and Whizzer. And then there was the Crocker. The museum rotates some of the bikes each month so that the bikes on display are constantly changing and expanding.
I was told that the Crocker was so rare, that when Virgil decided he wanted to find one he placed ads all over the world in hopes of finding his “nugget”. A young man somewhere up in the Dakotas (or that region, I think .. dementia again?) called him to report one that he knew was in a man’s barn. When he travelled to see it, he discovered it was not entirely original, as the front forks were actually from an old Triumph. He paid the owner generously, and compensated the young “tipster” a handsome finder’s fee. He then took the bike to the old mechanic (in his 80’s at that time) who originally built the Crocker engines and had it completely restored. He found a second Crocker in Italy, and after flying overseas to see the mint condition bike, paid over $200,000 to bring another “nugget” home to his collection. This is the one I saw in Solvang.
Last month I made the statement that “I’m convinced things do happen for a reason”, and “that if two points are destined to touch .. the universe will always find a way to make the connection”. So now I set my wheels of “contemplation” in motion again and connect the dots, so to speak. Who would have guessed that a Digital Instrument Scanning Probe Microscope would have been the catalyst that connected a man in California to a mint-condition Crocker in Italy .. not to mention a second one here in the US? More food for thought I guess.
About a year after I first saw this black & chrome Crocker in Solvang .. wouldn’t you know it, Harley Davidson came out with a brand “new” design motorcycle that they called the “Cross Bones”. Of course, no one would ever be able to prove that they stole the design from the Crocker .. but it even had the solo bicycle seat, springer front forks with a single “retro” headlight and a fat-bob style front tire .. the “similarities” were uncanny. The bike came out in ’08 but was discontinued after the ’09 production run .. and who knows what really pulled that off the market.
Crocker Motorcycles reemerged in 1997, when they first began to produce parts out of sheer love for the machine. After an enthusiastic response to the few high quality parts Crocker had produced for one of America’s top restorers, and with inquiries from original Crocker owners, it was decided to officially incorporate Crocker Motorcycle Company in January 1999. Crocker now produces full vintage reproduction bikes, and in 2007 presented the world with a modern-day homage to founder Al Crocker, the C4 Concept. The C4 got its name from being the 4th model in the Crocker lineup, after the “Speedway”, the “Small Tank” and finally the “Big Tank”. In conceiving the C4, the objective was to build a modern Crocker the way Al Crocker himself would have done it if he were still with us today. The concept bike is “built to order”, just like they used to do it.
Apparently, sometimes that “nugget” we first find is well worth holding onto .. as it’s often impossible to replace. And maybe this is just another “lesson” for our lives .. and about certain people who play a key role in it. You might “think” you can replace someone who held special meaning in your life .. because things do happen. But the truth is, you can’t. As time passes, that “nugget” just becomes more valuable .. and quite possibly, even more appreciated than you ever imagined possible.
Until next time .. ride smart .. ride safe
and the Adventure continues …