Backmarker: Seller’s Remorse

Mark Gardiner | May 21, 2015
Lately, I’ve been mulling over the idea of selling all of my bikes, and using that money to buy one that would be more reliable and versatile than any of them. I haven’t completely committed to the idea. There’s still a part of me that thinks the idea of having just one motorcycle is like having just one fly rod. Sure, you can fish, but only under certain circumstances for certain fish; having one’s kinda the mark of a dilettante.Anyway, that was on my mind a few weeks ago, when I heard about a big motorcycle auction happening in an unlikely place: Steelville, Missouri. Steelville’s down in the southeast corner of the state, on the edge of Mark Twain National Forest, in the Ozarks. Until James Dickey wrote ‘Deliverance,’ this was the sort of American landscape that would’ve only been described as picturesque, not picturesque and vaguely threatening. (It didn’t become genuinely threatening until the invention of meth.)

By all accounts, visitors were rare at Jerry L. Lewis’ farm in Cuba, MO.

The backstory on the auction, as far as I knew, was: some guy who lived down there accumulated a huge collection of bikes and parts, died, and when they realized the amount of stuff that had to be disposed of, someone had the presence of mind to hire Jerry Wood, who is a knowledgeable and experienced auctioneer specializing in vintage motorcycles.

A friend told me that he’d seen something that interested him on the list of bikes for sale and would, thus, be driving down with a trailer. I loaded up my 1965 Honda Dream 150, with the idea that we’d park it somewhere near the auction with a ‘For Sale’ sign on it.

The Dream was a cool bike, probably 97% complete – down to the original cables and foot rubbers. I’d seen it run about five years ago, when I bought it for $500. I found new tires for it, and got it titled, but despaired of ever simultaneously having the time and money required to finish the job. Every time I went down into the basement, the forlorn little bike gave me a pang of guilt. Still, I was hardly a motivated seller.

Steeleville, when we got there, announced itself as “The Floating Capital of Missouri.” (Cue: banjo music) It’s the kind of small town where a local teenager would ride his bicycle out to the main street and just sit there, watching traffic, pretty sure that any car going anywhere was going somewhere more interesting.

Jerry Wood’s crew spent two months trying to sort and identify the bikes and parts for sale, and had pulled many tons of the good stuff out of the farm and installed it in an empty industrial building. Seeing the list of auction items didn’t prepare me for the experience. There were hundreds of more-or-less complete bikes, from the sublime to the ridiculous, along with a mind-blowing collection of parts (and several dozen outboard motors for good measure).

And, the more we learned about the guy who’d accumulated all this stuff, the weirder the story got.

The story I heard was that “the good stuff” had been burned up in a fire a year or two earlier.

He’s still alive. He’s been committed, with some kind of dementia. Although Jerry Lewis (yes, that was his name) was a loner, I spoke with a few locals who had dealings with him.

He bought the farm property 45 years ago, after he returned from Vietnam. I heard that, for a while, he did mechanical work on forklifts. Also, for a while, he operated a little motorcycle repair shop in Rolla, which is the nearest town of any size. I heard that he traveled around buying (often junk) motorcycles and that every now and then locals would go out to the farm when they needed a hard-to-find part for an obscure or out-of-date motorcycle but that unannounced visitors were, ahh… discouraged.

BM150521_Donny.jpg
Donny Brookshire was one of the few people who Jerry Lewis
trusted enough that he let him see what he had, down on the farm.
When I asked him where Lewis is, Donny told me, “I call it the
nuthouse.”

Over time, he went from a guy who just really liked motorcycles to a guy who had a hoarding problem, to a guy with real obsessive-compulsive issues. Like, he didn’t just want to have a lot of motorcycles, he wanted all the gas tanks to be together, and all the turn signals together, and all the wheels together. As in, hundreds of bikes were dismantled and sorted into their component parts. One of the few people who called Jerry Lewis a friend told me that – at least at the beginning – he had a remarkable ability to remember what had been with what.

Then, there was a fire. I heard that his best stuff got burned up in that. I heard that he may’ve started it himself, perhaps in a dispute with a tenant who was renting a home or mobile home at the farm. I heard that he showed up at the Walmart in Rolla, ranting that the government was about to bomb the town and that everyone had to take cover. Police arrived; they found he was carrying $20,000 in cash. I heard it was $30,000. I heard that Jerry Lewis had a brother, who may or may not have had some psych issues of his own, but wanted nothing to do with Jerry, who was examined and determined to be incompetent.

This much seems indisputable: it’s been determined that Jerry Lewis will never leave the state’s care. And in the State of Missouri, that means your stuff’s gonna’ get sold to cover the cost of said care.

Hence, the auction. We arrived a day early so we could check it out. The lots of parts were really daunting. One lot was a box of Amal carbs, containing dozens of carburetors, different models and sizes in varying conditions. Tough luck if you were looking for one, or a pair; you had to buy all of them. Ditto the box of acetylene headlights; treasure for collectors of machines from the Pioneer era. But very few things were accurately identified or labeled. It was really an auction for experts only.

I kept being drawn back to a beautiful aluminum fuel tank.

“I wonder if that could be modified to fit my Triumph?” I mused.

My friend said, “You’d be smarter to modify your Triumph to fit that tank.”

Touché.

One pal was determined to bid on an Adler Single that he was familiar with, since he had one just like it. Another – something of a Morini expert – identified a 125cc Single that was the first one with a Heron head. That interested him.

There were so many parts that only the rarest stuff could be sold by the piece. Most of the parts were sold off by the pallet. One of my friends had the genius idea that they should’ve held a swap meet right outside over the next couple of days.
The room was full of little easter eggs like this scooter  which had originally been sold by Hall of Famer Ed Iron Man Kretz.  He won the first-ever Daytona 200.
The room was full of little “easter eggs” like this scooter, which had originally been sold by Hall of Famer Ed ‘Iron Man’ Kretz. (He won the first-ever Daytona 200.)

I found a better headlight nacelle for my Honda Dream, but it was being sold as part of an entire pallet of parts I didn’t want. I ended up writing a note, “I will pay $20 for this part” with my phone number on it, and sticking it to the nacelle.

Dazed by the array of material on display, we headed for a motel in Rolla, by way of the town’s one brew-pub.

The next morning, we detoured past Jerry Lewis’ farm. It was festooned with “No Trespassing” signs but we figured that since: a.) The next day there was an auction at that location, and b.) the occupant was safely ensconced in the loony bin, we could ignore the signs and enter without the risk of being shot.

The dual track showed signs of having been hastily brushed back – work performed by Woods’ crew, to make it easier to get trucks in, so they could remove the good stuff to the indoor auction location. We came across a good-sized box turtle. Seeing such a large reptile reminded me to be on the alert for snakes.

My friend Jim helpfully informed me that there were lots of copperheads in this part of Missouri (locals pronounce it “Missouruh”) but what we really had to worry about were cottonmouths. Those were the bad ones. That kept me out of the brushier areas of the farm, which turned out to be lucky, because the guys who beat the bushes picked up a bunch of ticks. Yes, ticks.

After an hour looking around there, it was time to get to the auction.

We parked our van and trailer, and I stuck a ‘For Sale’ sign on my Dream. I only paid $500 for it, so I doubled that and figured, either way I’m gonna’ get a message from God; sell it to someone else who wants to collect it for a while, or bring it home and finish the job of putting it on the road. One way or another, it was gonna’ get out of my basement.

There were hundreds of frames and rusted hulks auctioned off en masse, on the second day of the auction.

Despite the remote location, the auction attracted about 500 bidders. Wood had pulled a few select bikes and parts up to the front, I guess with the idea of starting off with a bang (although it wasn’t a best-to-worst arrangement; there were nuggets scattered throughout the 500 or so lots going on the first day.) A 1915 Harley – mostly there but a real project – sold for $27,500.

The crowd didn’t necessarily look as if it was composed of people with that much spending money. It was more cane-and-artificial-hip than hipster. But there were a handful of pros bidding on many items. Those guys were not emotionally driven; they bid up to some predetermined limit and they either won, or moved on. Once they’d shaken their heads, no amount of cajoling on the part of the auctioneer got a further bid.

BM150521_NSU30k.jpg
Although there were many plebian bikes for sale, there were also
some genuinely desirable bikes, like this 1938 bevel-drive OHC
twin-port NSU. It sold for $30,000.

Then there were bikes that caught the attention of specific bidders. Those guys would bid for a while, then give up. Jerry would say something like, “They’re not making any more of these, folks!” and some early bidder would jump back in.

A 1956 Moto Guzzi 500 Aingle sold for $20,000. A ’50 Panther went for $30,000. Those prices seemed high, but I’m not enough of an expert to really know. A pair of Suzuki GT750s in OK condition went for over $10,000 (I saw one as good sell for $600 in Kansas City recently). A Honda 305 Superhawk went for $4400.

I was already having second thoughts about selling my Dream, but I sidled over to a young hipster who paid way too much for a Honda Benly.

“If you’re interested in small Hondas from that period,” I said, “I’ve got a much nicer one for sale in the parking lot.”

He told me that all he wanted was the seat.

My friend who bid on the Morini was one of those undisciplined ones who reached his limit, dropped out, and then jumped back in to pay one-and-a-half times what he thought he could afford. (He also impetuously bought a tiny two-stroke Ducati that, on closer examination the next morning, proved to be little more than a piece of decor.)

We were in the process of checking out when my phone rang.

“I’m down here in the parking lot looking at your bike,” a voice said. “What’s the best price you’ll take?”

Even Jerry Wood was surprised. He recently wrote on his web site  I believe that you will find that this is the new market value especially for barn-find bikes with a nice patina.
Even Jerry Wood was surprised. He recently wrote on his website, “I believe that you will find that this is the new market value especially for barn-find bikes with a nice patina.”

I told the guy that, based on today’s auction, I should be asking for more, not taking less. He admitted that I was right. A couple of minutes later, I counted a thick (for me) stack of Jacksons, and signed over the title. We unloaded my Dream, and put the Adler (really just a parts bike), the Morini (all there), and the little Ducati on the trailer.

Darkness fell on the way back to Kansas City. My friends excitedly relived their purchases with the same kind of elation I’ve seen in hunters, returning from the woods with deer in the bed of the pickup. On the other hand, I was the guy coming home with his tag, on the last day of the season. I had seller’s remorse, which I didn’t really even know was a thing.
I suppose part of it was a delayed (or just continuing) shock at the prices paid for bikes that I would not warrant a second look, on Craigslist. We all found ourselves wondering if the auction represented a resurgence of vintage bike values, or if something weird had happened on that one day.

You have to feel a little sorry for Jerry L. Lewis, too. He must’ve started out like us; just a guy who really never met a motorcycle he didn’t like. Of course, at some point he went from being a fan and collector, to a hoarder, to plumb crazy. For his sake, I hope he doesn’t understand what just happened; that his beautiful hoard has been dispersed.

That would drive him crazy.

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | 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.'

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