Backmarker: Finishing Mike’s Collection

Mark Gardiner | October 8, 2015

Finishing Mike’s collection: the thrill of the (Richard) Chase

Backmarker Richard Chase
I met up with Richard Chase, at his home (which used to be a horse farm) on the outskirts of Omaha. In the last year or so, he’s replaced the old barn and variety of storage sheds with several new steel buildings. This building houses his collection. He’s standing at the head of a line of Kawasaki Z models. Some of them once belonged to his best friend. When that guy died, Chase vowed to complete the collection. As you can see, he went a little further.

For years, I’ve had this fantasy about setting up a mutual fund that — instead of holding stocks — would hold motorcycles. My friends and I would pool our capital and invest in bikes. We’d take advantage of the way virtually all used-bike values bottom out somewhere between 15—25 years of age. After that, pretty much no matter how unloved bikes might’ve been when new, values start to climb. A few months ago, when I went to that hoarder’s estate auction in southeastern Missouri, the point was driven home again: even some pretty ordinary old motorcycles can be good investments.

That’s my excuse for wasting so much time on Craigslist. Seriously, I have a problem. I spend so much time looking at used bikes online that my wife calls it ‘Craigporn’.

Considering my age and background, I pay particular attention to Japanese sportbikes, from the late ’70s through early ’90s. But I’m always too cautious; after identifying a possible bargain, I mull it over for anything from an hour to a day, then go back and find the bike’s been sold.

The thing is, now I know where all those bikes end up.

You see, a few weeks ago a friend of mine picked up a mid-‘70s GT750 ‘Water Buffalo’ with a locked up motor for $500. He put it on Craigslist, and got a call from a stranger up in Omaha who offered him $1200 sight unseen. My friend delivered it to the buyer’s barn, which he found was filled with hundreds of first generation Honda Interceptors, oil-cooled Gixxers, GPz Kawis… all the stuff that’s always bought out from under me.

Within a few days, I was on my way to meet Richard Chase. He was happy to lay out his entire business plan, though he was a bit self-effacing as he drew the line at being photographed.

Chase is 44, the son of a U.S. Air Force major and a Japanese mom. He grew up in the Omaha area, and worked at a local Honda/Yamaha shop after high school. He worked in bike shops and raced out west for a few years before coming back home. He ran a couple of earlier trading businesses; he dealt in classic American muscle cars and owned a pawn shop.

About six years ago, his best childhood pal — a hoarder named Mike — died before fulfilling his dream of collecting one example of all the 900 and 1000cc Kawasaki Z models. Richard Chase bought all his friend’s Z bikes at the estate auction and vowed to complete the collection.

“He was one of the greatest guys ever,” Chase told me. “He had the biggest heart, and really connected with motorcycles. I started driving around, looking for all the parts and pieces to finish his set.”

It’s not as if he was some rich guy with money to burn. I mean, he’d been in the muscle car business at a time when prices were climbing fast so I guess he had some cash to play with, but the collection I saw had basically been bootstrapped.

In investment terms, he’s an arbitrager. While filling out his dead pal’s collection, Chase accumulated quite a few bikes he didn’t really want. The penny dropped when he put them on eBay and a Japanese buyer arrived to pick up two or three bikes he’d purchased. That guy took a look around the barn and left with Japanese muscle bikes that were common here but weren’t ever sold new in Japan; bikes that Chase hadn’t even advertised. “Can you find more?” the Japanese dealer asked. “Because I’ll buy everything you can get.”

Over the next few years, as he told me, “It just snowballed.” Now he’s got a couple of employees shuttling back and forth between storage lockers and cargo containers positioned from Ohio to the Pacific. Last year he sold over a thousand bikes — almost all classic Japanese muscle, many just found on Craigslist. Once in a while people like me show up and buy a bike or three, but mostly he exports container loads of 20—40 bikes at a time to a handful of foreign wholesalers — including Motorcycle Megastore in the UK.

I asked him where he’d put himself, on a graph where the four corners were labeled ‘Collector’, ‘Investor’, ‘Hoarder’ and ‘Dealer’.

“Right in the middle, I guess,” was his answer. “The difference between a collector and a hoarder is, a collector will sell at the right price. As for being an investor, I’m an investor by circumstance. I don’t speculate in bikes, but my inventory does increase in value.”

At any given time, he’s got several hundred bikes in what he calls his collection — yes, all his friend Mike’s Kawasaki Zs (including a ’78 Z1-R TC with ATP turbo), but also every imaginable oil-cooled Gixxer, every factory turbo, a CBX with 11 miles on it. These bikes are ‘for sale’ but only in theory.

Backmarker Richard Chase

If you like rare Suzukis, put your drool bib on now. RG500 Gamma flanked by an XN85 Turbo and GSX-R750 Limited homologation special with factory dry clutch.

He’s got an equal number of complete bikes, mostly runners with original paint, in the next building. That’s his inventory, but he rarely advertises or auctions those bikes any more. He just puts the word out to his wholesalers. He also places “collections wanted” ads on Craigslist.

A few miles away, he has still another warehouse with even more bikes destined to be rebuilt or stripped for parts. He buys whole dealerships’ worth of NOS parts. I peeked in a cardboard box and found a brand new H2 gas tank. Standing in a corner, behind a door in his office, there was a sparkling set of exhausts for a first generation Z. The original owner mounted a full Kerker system before ever running his bike in 1976. He hung the originals in his bedroom closet.

“I paid $1000 for those,” Chase told me, “but they’re probably worth $3000 to the right person.”

Over lunch at a catfish shack just across the Missouri River, on the south side of Omaha, we discussed the next wave of ‘investment grade’ bikes. We agreed that the ‘90s VFR 750s were a great deal, but he told me that, ironically, the most sought after bikes are often the ones that were unloved in their day, or at least those which didn’t sell well.

Backmarker Richard Chase

Chase is still building out his property, so quite a bit of his inventory has to be stored in nearby buildings. One entire building is filled with parts, frames, and motors.

A few days after we spoke, Chase headed to the Indy area, where he bought 61 bikes from a single seller. He told me that often, when he makes a deal like that, he can see a handful of machines that he knows he can move to his wholesalers, and which will fund the rest of the purchase. The rest of the bikes will just become inventory; destined to either be sold or stripped, but since he’s got almost nothing in them, he feels no pressure to sell them in any hurry.

Through his buyers in Japan, he’s now also bringing in Japanese domestic market two-stroke crotch rockets. Bikes like early RGV250 Suzukis are now old enough that they can be registered and ridden in the U.S.

Chase hopes that by early 2016, he’ll have his collection ready for public showing, and his inventory cleaned up and priced for retail sale. At that point, he’ll be better equipped to sell individual bikes to American customers who, if they want, can make the trip to the outskirts of Omaha and browse the bikes in person. That will also serve his goal of keeping the best and most sought-after machines here in the U.S. He’s already got a name for that business: Kamikaze Imports.

As far as a business model goes, you may have read this far and be thinking, “So what, I do that now,” or, “My friend does something like that.” But the difference is scale: Chase maintains about ten storage facilities across the Midwest and West, and has a whole network of ‘bird dogs’ who scour local Craigslist ads and buy bikes for modest finder’s fees. Doing a back of the envelope calculation on his sales volume, it’s clear that it translates into a very healthy six-figure net for him. Under Iowa law he’s not even obliged to have a dealer’s license, since almost all his sales are of vehicles that are more than 25 model years-old.

Backmarker Richard Chase

Another steel building holds several hundred bikes that are for sale, although the inventory’s not quite ready for retail display just yet. When I walked through this building I realized that Chase and I agree almost entirely on what constitutes a cool old bike.

I would be jealous, but on the ride back down to KC I had to admit that the guy is tireless. I loved the way his success validated my business plan, but I know I don’t have the energy to crisscross the country two dozen times a year, or the chutzpah to actually open those barn doors, see 61 motorcycles and say, “I’ll take them all.”

So, if someone else is going to do it, I’m happy that it’s Richard Chase. He loves motorcycles, and any motorcyclist he doesn’t know is just a friend he hasn’t met yet.

He’s gone a lot further than he expected to go, after filling out his friend Mike’s collection of Zs. “If Mike was alive today,” Chase told me, “he’d work for me for free just to be surrounded by so many great bikes.”

“Every now and then business will slow down, or I’ll have a cash crunch and think, ‘What am I doing?’” Chase told me. “But whenever that happens, within a few days I’ll make a big sale, or find some incredible collection. It’s not a God, thing, but I always think, ‘That’s Mike up there looking out for me.’”

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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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