Canada’s motorcycle industry gets a stamp of approval
Vancouver-based graphic designer Matthew Warburton was
actually on the Isle of Man this spring, on the day his stamp
designs officially went on sale.
A few months ago, my friend Paul Smith — who was my mechanic at the TT in 2002, and who still lives in my old home town of Calgary — sent me a letter containing a little booklet of stamps, featuring Canadian motorcycles. The stamps had just been issued by Canada Post.
By coincidence, the stamps had been released during the 2013 TT, so I was back on the Isle of Man when they first appeared. One day, while I was standing by a large pile of ‘Riding Man
’ books in a borrowed booth behind the TT grandstand, I was approached by a guy who introduced himself as a fellow Canadian. He was Matthew Warburton. As we chatted, he explained that he was a graphic designer based in Vancouver. The Canadian motorcycle stamps had been his project.
When I got home, and my mechanic friend sent me the booklet of the stamps, I contacted Warburton, who was pleased. “That’s exactly what Canada Post would want to hear — that motorcycle mechanics were just buying the stamps as souvenirs.” (Canada Post really would like that; postal services love stamp collectors, because they pay for stamps and thus provide revenue to the post office, but don’t actually use them in a way that incurs the costs of delivering mail!)
For Warburton, getting Canadian motorcycles commemorated on stamps was a double win. First, being assigned a stamp is a big deal for graphic designers (even in this age of email) and second, he’s been an avid motorcyclist his whole life.
Canada Post’s marketing plan for its motorcycle stamps included this First Day Cover, with a cool cancellation stamp inspired by a WWII-era recruiting poster.
“My dad is from Birmingham (England),” he told me. “All the manufacturers — Norton, Triumph, BSA — were in that area. He was working as a mechanical engineer, and all of his friends had some sort of connection to the motorcycle industry. He had a bike in England, but when he married my mother and moved to Canada in 1960, there was a period when he didn’t have one. But in 1970, he bought a little Honda SL100 to commute to work. Then, he bought a Ducati 350, which is probably what started my love affair with Ducatis. I’d watch him tinker with that every weekend, in the kitchen. When I was 12, we bought a little basket-case Suzuki TC120, and I’ve had motorcycles ever since.”
He currently rides a Ducati 996, and has a ’77 Yamaha RD400 project in the garage.
You won’t be surprised to read that the wheels of government turn slowly; the project got it’s start over a decade ago, when Warburton sat on a Canada Post ‘stamp advisory committee’ that reviewed citizen suggestions for postage stamps.
“There’s a whole range of people on the committee,” he told me. “Designers, historians, educators, ex-politicians, some stamp dealers. I was on the committee for seven years. We’d get these big long lists of topics, and the number of letters received in support of each topic.”
“Every year, motorcycles would appear on that list,” he recalled, “and every year someone on the committee would say that there weren’t any Canadian motorcycles, so we couldn’t issue a Canadian motorcycle stamp. I’d always pipe up and say, ‘I know there was at least one Canadian motorcycle, the Can-Am, because I had one in the ‘70s!’”
He offered to do some research and look for other Canadian bikes. That led him to Allan Johnson, who lives on the other side of Canada, in Ontario. Johnson probably knows more about Canada’s motorcycle history than anyone. He was instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Museum, in Brantford, Ontario, and has published dozens of stories on Canada’s motorcycle heritage in the Toronto Star, which is Canada’s biggest newspaper.
) Cancellation stamp inspired by the above WWII poster. (Below
) the First Day Cover sold to stamp collectors.
Warburton was surprised when Johnson told him that there had been over 20 Canadian motorcycle manufacturers, ranging from modest efforts by CCM — a famous bicycle company that made a 1 hp Motosacoche engine kit available at the beginning of the previous century — to more ambitious projects like the four-cylinder Galt Flyer, which had hub-center steering in the 1920s.
Warburton and Johnson also prepared a list of great Canadian motorcycle racers, so that Canada Post would have the option of focusing on people instead of machines. Among those suggestions was Billy Matthews — his 1947 Daytona 200 victory, on a Norton, was a double-first; the first win by a foreigner, and the first win by non-U.S.-built motorcycle. Yvon Duhamel was another; he raced at the World Championship level but is best remembered as a Kawasaki ace in AMA road racing in the ‘70s.
“The only rider I thought might be controversial was Mike Duff,” Warburton told me, “because of course Mike later on became Michelle. I wondered whether Canada Post was progressive enough to put a transgendered person on a stamp. It was surprising; they didn’t have a negative reaction to it. They just said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting...’ but in the end they decided to focus on the mechanical aspect.”
(Read more about Michelle Duff in a previous Backmarker installment: Backmarker: Ernst Degner and MZ Secrets)
In 2007, Warburton’s term on the committee came to an end. Two years later, Canada Post contacted him and told him that they wanted to proceed with the motorcycle topic. They asked him to submit designs, which he did. The committee also got a competing designer involved, but when it came to a vote, Warburton’s concept won out. The plan was to issue two stamps in 2013, and another pair a year or two later.
) Warburton and photographer Paul Joseph found the first two motorcycles at the Deeley motorcycle collection and museum in Vancouver. That’s a place you must visit, if you’re ever in that part of Canada. (Below
) These stamps — the first Canadian stamps to ever feature motorcycles — are currently available in Canadian post offices.
The first pair of stamps featured two motorcycles from the pioneer era, a 1908 CCM, and a 1914 Indian. (The Massachusetts company built motorcycles in Canada from 1912-19.) Examples of both machines were found near Warburton, in the fabulous Trev Deeley Motorcycle Exhibition in Vancouver, where they were photographed by Paul Joseph.
I admit that I expected to hear that working for a government agency had been a frustrating exercise in design-by-committee and political correctness. But that was not Matthew Warburton’s experience.
“As designers, we work with design managers at Canada Post. I worked with Alain Leduc, who has an artistic background. He really pushed to ensure that I had a lot of creative freedom. My design, which is very clean and minimal, is actually not typical for Canadian stamps,” Warburton told me. “There was another guy by the name of Hendrik Rens, who worked for a company called Shawk!, where all the pre-press work was done. The image files combine halftone and line art, and the final printing is superb as a result. Hendrik actually owns a 1914 Indian, so he really took it personally.”
Canada Post also commissioned Warburton to create a special cancellation stamp that was used on the First-Day Covers sold to stamp collectors. His design for the cancellation was based on a famous Canadian recruiting poster, and executed by illustrator Mark Pilon.
When I spoke to Warburton a few days ago, he had recently been contacted by Canada Post. They’ve okayed the design phase on the second pair of stamps.
The plan is for the second pair to feature much newer machines. One of them will be a Can-Am MX250. The Bombardier company, based in Quebec, owns Rotax. Bombardier’s Can-Am division made dirt bikes and handful of more obscure street bikes from 1973-87. The brand burst onto the motocross scene early, when Gary Jones, Marty Tripes, and Jimmy Ellis finished 1-2-3 for the 1974 season in AMA 250 outdoor nationals.
Those machines are close to the designer’s heart, because he rode a Can-Am TnT in the woods when he was a teenager. The TnT name stood for ‘Track n Trail’. In their day, the disc-valve two-stroke Rotax motors made almost shocking power, and Warburton remembers that his 250 could hit 100 miles an hour.
If things go according to plan, the next pair of stamps in the series will feature Michael Uhlarik’s Amarok P1 electric motorcycle. This picture was taken a year ago, during a test session at Atlantic Motorsports Park in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. The rider is eastern Canadian young gun Austin Shaw-Leary. In the background is Andrew Murray, of FOGI Racing.
“Some people suggested that we feature a Can-Am Spyder, but that’s not a motorcycle,” Warburton said dismissively.
He’s also suggested that Canada Post take, as a fourth stamp subject, the Amarok P1.
The P1 is an electric motorcycle that, so far, exists only as a single hand-made prototype. It raced at Pikes Peak earlier this year, and ran out of juice four corners from the top after its first ascent was red-flagged at about 1/4 distance, so its total run was 1.25 times what they’d planned for.
If Canada Post agrees to the choice of an electric prototype as the fourth bike in the series, it will ensure that the series includes a look forward as well as looks backward. Watch for a Backmarker devoted to Canadian motorcycle designer Michael Uhlarik and his Amarok P1 bike later this winter.