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Backmarker: Exploring St. Louis' Vintage Scene

Thursday, April 3, 2014
Although his personas gruff  while we were talking two guys walked in from the neighborhood with an old chain that they needed shortened by one link. Kiernan broke off our conversation  wandered back into the shop  and shortened the chain free of charge. He holds an informal bike show and BBQ every spring. If youre in the St. Louis area on April 19  you should drop by the shop at 3537 Chouteau Avenue.
Although his persona’s gruff, while we were talking two guys walked in from the neighborhood with an old chain that they needed shortened by one link. Kiernan broke off our conversation, wandered back into the shop, and shortened the chain free of charge. He holds an informal bike show and BBQ every spring. If you’re in the St. Louis area on April 19, you should drop by the shop at 3537 Chouteau Avenue.
Meet me in St. Louis

Mary was away most of March. That always leaves me with time on my hands so I filled in one day with a motorcycle-themed lunch date with a friend... The date filled an entire day because our lunch was in St. Louis.

For a city its size, St. Louis has a remarkably diverse and established vintage motorcycle scene. My friend and I began with the food part of our date, at the Triumph Grill on Olive Street, which is attached to ‘The Moto Museum’ which is owned by a local restauranteur/motorcycle dealer and general bike nut, Steve Smith.

From there, we moved on to after-lunch coffee, at Michael’s Motorcycles on Chouteau Avenue. Michael Kiernan’s place looks like any motorcyclist’s dream coffee shop, with some very cool vintage bikes on sale, and a snazzy coffee bar with an expert-grade espresso machine.

Kiernan’s lived in St. Louis for years, but you can still easily hear his Australian accent when he explains that although he did intend for the space to function as a cafe, he couldn’t attract enough customers to justify it! Now, the espresso’s on the house, for the relatively rare visitors to the shop.

The reason there’s not much ride-in traffic is that Kiernan’s stock in trade is premium, rare, and/or highly collectible machines. He acquires bikes from all over the U.S. and sells them worldwide, so walk-in traffic? Not so much.

He moved to the U.S. from Australia when he married a woman from Philadelphia. They ended up in St. Louis when she came to Washington University to do a Master’s degree. As for deciding to stay in the city, he told me, “I’m kind of an underachiever, and here I can amount to something,” then half-serious just for a moment, he told me that the location in the center of the U.S., affordable real estate and a low cost of doing business had kept him here.

“I’ve always loved bikes,” he said. “In the mid-‘90s there was so much old stuff here, Triumphs and Nortons, and I just started playing with them.” He bought old bikes, fixed them up one at a time in his loft.

“I’m an OK mechanic,” he told me. “I know my limitations. Every couple of years we might restore a bike, but our business is not restoration; I’m a broker.” His current business model is a mix. Some of the inventory in the shop is on consignment, although he prefers to buy bikes that he thinks are undervalued, and then wait as long as it takes to find a customer willing to pay what a machine’s worth.



He protested that he was down on inventory during my visit, but that didn’t prevent me from seeing several really interesting bikes. A Scott two-stroke Twin had plenty of patina but looked as if it would run. That was a bike that had been sold and was awaiting pickup.

I also dug a Lyster-Triumph. Colin Lyster was a Rhodesian racer and mechanic who became pals with Nobby Clark when both of them worked as mechanics on mine machinery in South Africa. Nobby went on to wrench for Mike Hailwood, and Lyster designed his own frames and, incidentally, was an early adopter of disc brake technology. Lyster emigrated to the U.S. and a lot of Lyster-framed bikes were sold on the east coast in the early ‘70s.

The coolest bike in the shop, though, was a machine I’d never heard of: an Islo 175. You might guess that a motorcycle named “I slow” didn’t originate in an English-speaking country and you’d be right.

It turns out that in the ‘50s, there was a very successful motorcycle manufacturer in Mexico, who specialized in utilitarian two-strokes used for deliveries and commuting. That guy’s name was Isodoro Lopez (hence ‘Islo’) and he had big dreams. He wanted to enter an Islo in the famous Motogiro d’Italia road race for sub-175cc motorcycles.

Lopez commissioned four purpose-built racers, with custom frames and motors sourced from Morini. Production delays meant that he missed the 1957 event. Tragically, several spectators were killed in the ’57 Mille Miglia car race, and the Italian government banned racing on public roads, so Isodoro Lopez never got the chance to test his machine.
 

If you’re in the St. Louis area on Saturday, April 19, you should definitely check out Michael’s Motorcycles’ annual bike show, BBQ, and general ride-in.

Suitably caffeinated, I was ready for the long drive back to Kansas City but several people had insisted, “Make sure you drop in at Flying Tiger Motorcycles.”

Eric Bess and his partner in life and business, Teresa Swanson, have only had their shop since 2010, but they’ve managed to firmly ensconce themselves in the St. Louis vintage bike scene. (Maybe it helps that their shop’s right across the street from the Schlafly Bottleworks craft brewery, which hosts a popular vintage bike night every month.)

Eric Bess opened Flying Tiger in 2010. The shops moved and expanded twice  and become a key resource for anyone in St. Louis whos got an old motorcycle theyre trying to keep running.
Eric Bess opened Flying Tiger in 2010. The shop’s moved and expanded twice, and become a key resource for anyone in St. Louis who’s got an old motorcycle they’re trying to keep running.
It turns out that Eric and I had seen each other ten years earlier; he worked at Kawasaki’s headquarters in Orange County when I was testing bikes for Motorcyclist Magazine and, later, Road Racer X.

Eric was basically born on a motorcycle in the small town of Bonne Terre, Missouri, south of St. Louis. He was one of the faces of Kawasaki, leading group demo rides at big events like Daytona, and he jumped at the chance to work at Kawi’s U.S. headquarters, doing technical quality assurance and test riding bikes used in press launches; fun stuff like that.

He was lovin’ the southern California life, commuting on bikes borrowed from the press fleet, and racing AMA District 37 events in the desert on weekends. Then the economy tanked in 2008, bringing motorcycle sales to a grinding halt. It stopped being fun within a year, when he found himself standing outside the office, holding a cardboard box full of his personal belongings.

“I called Teresa to come and pick me up,” he recalled, “because I’d ridden a company bike into work.”

Teresa could just come over and pick him up, because she’d already lost her job in the recession. Sitting in the truck on the way home, the two decided they’d move back to St. Louis and open up their own bike shop. They debated what to call it, and asked a friend in the ad business to suggest names, but everything that the guy came up with was lame.

“Before we left Orange County, we had to go to our favorite Thai restaurant one last time,” Eric told me. “We ordered the ‘crying tiger’ beef, and said, ‘That’s it!’. We called our friend and told him our shop was going to be called Flying Tiger.”

Since opening in the hip Maplewood area, the shop’s grown out of its original shed and now occupies a good part of a city block. At first, part of their business was buying, refurbishing, and selling classic bikes, although recently they’ve cut back on sales of older bikes to focus on a recently acquired Enfield franchise. In the back, though, there’s a wide range of older bikes undergoing work that ranges from restoration and customizing to the far more prosaic assignment of “just get it running.”

So far, all this is just your usual feel-good, every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining story: Guy loses job, moves back to depressed midwestern home and then builds a great small business on honest pricing and great service. But that would leave out the thing Flying Tiger is perhaps most famous for.

BM20140403_Candle.jpg
Just the thing, when you want to hold a romantic candlelit
dinner in the pits at an AHRMA event. Sold online for $18.
Last fall, Teresa was messing about at a hobby of hers, making scented candles. They both were prone to waxing poetic about how they missed the smell of burning two-stroke oil, which gave her an idea.

Teresa made a small batch of candles, with wax infused with castor-bean oil. She created a suitable label, and sold a small batch to friends. The candles somehow ended up being featured on the French edition of GQ’s web site; then at the speed of the Internet, the product was mentioned on dozens of other web sites.

The two of them laughed at the recollection of how, at first they were excited about how fast the candles were selling online, and then how they scrambled to pull the product off their web site when they realized that there was no way they had the materials or facilities to manufacture $40,000-worth of them!

Since then, they’ve ramped up production capability, and they’re working on additional products for romantic gearheads. For example, how would you prepare for a date that included a dinner in candlelight that smells of stinkwheel? Well, you’d shower with soap that smells of grease, oil, and leather. When that’s available, you’ll find it for sale (along with the candle) at www.flyingtigermoto.com.


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Comments
backroadbob   April 7, 2014 07:09 PM
St. Louis? Wouldn't have been my first guess for a thriving under the radar vintage bike scene, but being on the East Coast I never have to look very far or very hard to find it. Nice detective work.