Ron Cherry: A bevy of bodacious bikes
August 10, 2018
If you went into Tony Norskog's living room, you couldn't miss a gleaming motorcycle prominently displayed there. It's a 1937 Zundapp K800 and perhaps he'd lovingly describe it.
"It was rebuilt in the Black Forest of Germany," he might tell you. "I bought it restored, but I haven't driven it yet. It has an H-pattern shifter on the right side of the transmission and a left-hand clutch. It's set up for a sidecar and can be used as a portable generator, so it's very practical."
This will tell you two things about Tony. One is that he has a passion for motorcycles, especially oft-obscure European ones. The other is that his wife, Dr. Sarah Woerner, is a very understanding person. A tour of their barn will confirm both impressions.
While Tony is well known for his wine-making past, including starting the organic Our Daily Red and Orleans Hill lines, he has devoted the same passion to motorcycles. The barn is now mainly devoted to motorcycles instead of wine vats.
Move over wine, here come the bikes
Racks along one wall and the back of the building are made to store a row of bikes on the floor and another tier on a heavy-duty shelf. The top level ones are on specially made steel pallets that have bikes securely strapped and are raised to store by an electric forklift.
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In all, he has 17 motorcycles of his own there as well as a few for friends. He quipped about how many he has by quoting another collector, "one less than I actually need."
Perhaps he is trying to fill that impossible number.
His collection includes some very unusual two-wheelers as well as more known, but still desirable ones such as a '53 BMW and a '69 BSA. There is also a Vespa scooter, but that he bought for his wife. Even that is a notable scooter.
"It's like the one Audrey Hepburn rode in Roman Holiday," he said. "It's Vespa 125, V30T, called a Faro Basso. That's Italian for 'low light' because the headlight was down on the fender instead of up on the handlebar. They were built from 1951 until 1957."
Then he added, "I haven't been able to get Sarah to take it on the road yet."
Tolerating a mate's passion is different than sharing it.
Tony does own one Harley, a 350cc Sprint.
"In the late '60s, Harley lost a marketing share to the smaller Japanese and European bikes," he said. "Instead of making one, it bought an Italian one, Aermacchi, and just rebadged it as a Harley."
So it was not quite an American bike, name or no name. Tony is rebuilding it with a different top end to improve it. But he also has one of the only motorcycles made in Denmark, a Nimbus.
History of the Nimbus
From 1919 until 1959, Fisker and Nielson manufactured the Nimbus with a 750cc inline four-cylinder engine and a drive shaft rather than a chain. They also produced, and continue to produce, vacuum cleaners.
"Production would shift with demand," Tony said. "Before the War, they built mainly motorcycles. After the war, they made mainly vacuum cleaners. It was according to who needed what."
Obviously, their vacuums became much more popular. But the motorcycles were dependable, if not modern.
"No big changes were made from 1936 on," he said. "The carburetor was the size of a lawnmower's. The Danish police and post office mainly used them."
The rear suspension consisted of what looked like two large rubber bands, which gave a little better ride than a hard-tail Harley.
Getting his 1954 Nimbus is a story in itself.
"In 2014, I was working for a friend at a winery in Northern Italy and saw it on eBay in Denmark. I had another friend who spoke Danish and bought it sight unseen, then had it shipped to Italy," Tony said. "I rode it there for two months before shipping it home."
Although the bike was restored, it did have one issue during its time in Italy.
"It kept popping out of third gear," he said. "All I had in the way of technical literature was a parts diagram."
However, the long manufacturing span without change and a simple design were helpful.
"I was able to get a gear from Denmark," he said. "I had the engine with the trans out in an hour and changed the gear. It was easy to work on."
Once back in the states, Tony continues to ride his Nimbus without problems.
"It's my regular ride," he said.
Furthering his collection
Other notables in Tony's stable include a mid-'50s Victoria V 35 Bergmeister, built by a German bicycle maker who manufactured motorcycles from 1901 until 1958, when it was swallowed up by DKW, the General Motors of German motorcycles. With a transverse V-twin engine and drive shaft, it is an interesting bike and one of maybe a half dozen in the states.
"I bought it off the Oregon Craigslist," he said. "It had fiberglass fenders, but I found a rough set of metal ones I need to get restored. I'm moving it back from pretty much original to totally original."
Then there is his '35 Ariel Red Hunter, a rare British bike with a 500cc single-cylinder engine that has the exhaust split to run down both sides for no apparent reason, except maybe for looks. The front suspension has only one center spring that looks a lot like the old Schwinn bicycle "springer" front forks.
"It makes the headlight dance a bit on the road at night," Tony said.
He bought the bike from a man who had extensively raced it years before, then had it restored to give to his grandkids.
"They said, 'Why would we want that? It's just an old bike.' So he sold it to me," Tony said.
Not long afterwards, he took it on a 100-mile run with other classic bikes.
"At the 90-mile point, a bolt came out and the valve train lifted off," he said. "I pulled over and trailered it home."
Then he found another problem.
"There were six different bolt threads in England. I had to find which one that bolt had been and then find a replacement."
The bike also has another caution: make sure the spark is retarded when kick starting or the engine might just kick back and throw you over the handlebars. But riding the Red Hunter is enough fun to warrant living with its peculiarities.
With so many motorcycles, Tony has many stories.
"I try less to collect steel than the adventure that comes along with the steel," he said.
But just to see them is an adventure due to what they are.
"My collection is eclectic," he said. "I'm not focused on any one brand."
That's what makes them a bevy of bodacious bikes.
The last ride
This is my last column on the fascinating vehicles in the Grass Valley/Nevada City area. I have moved to Reno, so I will no longer hang out Saturday mornings at Cars and Coffee, swapping car stories of those thrilling days of yesteryear.
And so, in a fiery Vette with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Bat Rod! This crazy columnist drives off into the sunrise.
Ron Cherry's books are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His latest book, "The St. Christopher Murders," is the second in the Father Bruce mystery series and opens with a dead body found at the Fourth of July parade in a small town in the Sierra Foothills that is remarkably similar to Nevada City. For more about him and his writing, check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com
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