In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'
Mike Harper of Harper’s Moto Guzzi. Harper was a motorcycle racer in Japan before becoming a dealer.
Not far from Kansas City lives a guy named Mike Harper, who has gathered the world’s largest inventory of old Moto Guzzi parts by buying up the inventories of hundreds of Guzzi dealers as they dropped the marque or went out of business altogether. A few months ago, I rode down to visit him and write about his business.
But as we talked, I realized that Mike has another, even more interesting story: Before he was ever a motorcycle dealer in the U.S., he was a factory racer in Japan, at the very time that the Japanese motorcycle industry came of age.
You see, after a couple of years’ racing in the States, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. They trained him as a helicopter mechanic and shipped him out to Atsugi Naval Air Station, about 20 miles from Tokyo. That was in 1959.
Just outside the main gate of the base, the town of Sagami Otsuka was “a train station, 45 bars, and a police station.” The bars plied sailors with beer and government-inspected girls. For an 18-year-old kid from the Midwest it was pretty good.
To make matters even better, there were motorcycles everywhere. He quickly bought a (now unheard of) single-cylinder 350cc Honda Dream, from a sailor who’d “gotten orders” – meaning, he was getting shipped back ‘Stateside. Then Mike bought a BSA Super Rocket.
Within a few months, the Navy transferred all the base’s helicopters somewhere else, leaving Mike without a job. He was reassigned to Shore Patrol – the Navy’s version of military police. It was a cushy assignment that left him with lots of free time.
Although the Navy didn’t allow racing on its bases, there were several Air Force bases right nearby, where they raced most weekends – drags, scrambles, even road races on courses laid out on the runways and taxiways. Mike found himself racing more often in the service than he had done as a civilian.
Mike, on a 250 Meguro, and Tomio Aosabi on Mike’s Honda 350 Dream Single (a model that’s now vanishingly rare!) They’re outside Aoki Motors, which was the local Honda and Yamaha dealer. This was a photo that Mike sent back to his mom in the U.S. Referring to Tomio as a ‘Jap’ is politically incorrect now, but the term’s offset by the note to his mom explaining that he’s his best pal. After he was repatriated, he never saw any of his Japanese ‘road brothers’ again.
A few high-profile race wins got him an invitation to join the Tokyo Otokichi Club, whose members were wealthy and connected motorsports fans. And an invitation to Hamamatsu, where he met Soichiro Honda, and tried the RC160 for himself on Honda’s test track.
“I never wanted to leave [Japan]. By then, I’d already extended once,” Mike told me. “But I must’ve pissed somebody off, because I got orders [to ship out back to the ‘States]. There weren’t any big, teary good-byes, but we had a couple or three going-away parties.”
He sold his bikes and left most of his trophies with Mama-san at Aoki Motors. Even though he later became a Yamaha dealer himself, he never returned to Japan, or saw any of his Japanese ‘road brothers’ again.
I recently asked him if he had realized, back then, that he was seeing motorcycle history being written. “Nah!” he scoffed. “I was a wild kid; I was too busy looking for trouble.”
Did he have any regrets?
“Honda CB92s were $315 brand new. Now, even a shitty one’s worth $10,000. I bet I raced and crashed a million dollars’ worth of ’em,” he told me, ruefully. “I wish I’d kept even one.”
After a few big wins, Mike was invited to join the Tokyo Otokichi Club, and given the rare chance of test-riding a Honda RC160 250cc four-cylinder factory racer. Soichiro Honda presented him with a tie-tac and cufflink set.