Racing Legend Jody Nicholas Rides
"Rhythm is a form cut into time," wrote the iconoclast and poet Ezra Pound. Is there a phrase that better describes the experience of motorcycling? And are there finer ways to experience motorcycling than astride a British classic bike? This question would provoke a passionate debate no less voluminous than the exhaust note of these beloved machines. This kind of intensity and passion fuels the mission of Herb Harris: to consecrate a beloved companion-his 1956 BSA DB 34 Gold Star.
The Texas-born and based Harris is one of those "difficult individuals" who enrich the art and sport of the two-wheeled world through their dedication to a vision that supersedes fashion. His Harris Vincent Gallery has been lauded as a sublime showcase of motorcycling classics. HVG’s motto, "It’s not the hardware, it’s the history," resonates with aficionados worldwide.
As one expects from the individualist, Harris’ approach is founded on the maxim of "riding one’s own road." This singular path has earned his collectibles the recognition of a top auction house like England’s Bonhams & Butterfields, purveyors of art and antiques since the end of the 18th century. This liaison is a source of great pride to Harris, whose ancestors were principals in the Virginia Company and cite English roots dating back to the 1600s.
But Harris is not about quantity. Rather than institutionalized acquisitiveness or boyish accumulation, Harris has honed his agenda to focus on the few machines that he alone considers worthy. Like the musical scholar who unearths a sheaf of seminal Haydn cello pieces buried in the dustiest drawers of a State archive, Harris’ tenacity reveals truths and treasures that continue to illuminate a history he is bent on revitalizing.
His gallery, in fact, has the elegance of an English drawing room. Exhibited upon their pedestals in oak-paneled chambers with dark wainscoting and heavy burgundy drapery, the motorcycles on display take on the stateliness one would attribute to a Canova bust of Voltaire. Harris’ statement of purpose is as quietly confident as the ambiance: "My goal is simply to make this the best motorcycle collection in the world."
Harris demonstrates the keenness of his collector’s spirit as he proudly steers the viewer toward cutaways of a Gold Star engine, and complete motorcycle. "Both factory done," he exults. "I also have a concours-winning ’62 DBD 34 Clubman’s, as a perfect visual example."
To converse with Harris is to receive a diploma level course in the motorcycles built by Birmingham Small Arms. The company, founded in 1861 during the Crimean War, grew to become more than simply a manufacturer of military equipment. BSA diversified into aviation, automobiles-notably with the Daimler brand-and bicycles, as well as motorcycles. It is less than common knowledge that BSA was, at its peak in 1951, the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, and that its stable included Norton, Villiers, Triumph, and Ariel. So, BSAs have a story as substantial as their undeniable quotient of classic cool.
Harris explains that, as an investment, the Gold Star promises a solid return. "As a classic bike, the Goldie has come into its own," he says. "It was recently estimated that these hand-built and individually dynoed bikes number only about 2,000 worldwide, in all guises, for all years."
We are talking about a motorcycle produced over the course of a quarter century, from 1938 through 1963. In 350cc and 500cc configurations, the Gold Star earned its popularity and status as one of the fastest production motorcycles of the 1950s. Each one was hand-built, and came with factory-documented dynamometer results, certifying to the excited new owner the actual horsepower produced.
As with all classic marques, the BSA has its own charisma that touches the soul of those who embrace it, and Harris’ embrace is without equivocation. "To me, it epitomizes the current enthusiasm for café racers with a great deal of legend," he says. His description has the urgency of a Gold Star in full flight. "90 mph in first gear, for the best ones. Silly anecdotes about performance compare with the legendary Vincents."
His zeal as a collector is no less unbound: "These are on the front edge of the wave, I think, as they have virtually disappeared overnight from eBay and auctions. This is staggering when you consider that a thousand or two were built every year of its production." With some irony, he attributes their current rarity to the ruggedness of build and versatility as street bikes, club racers and scramblers. "Most of them were run so hard," he says, "they literally were ridden to death until they ended up as metal for the scrap yard."
He segues into a litany of the bike’s racing pedigree in the next instant, as easily as the Gold Star would negotiate a series of S-curves. "The Gold Star was probably the only serious single-cylinder AMA Grand National racer here in the United States," Harris explains, "and it was always a winner in the Manx GP."
This is a man who simply cannot wait to ride his favorite bike, and savor everything he knows about it as he and his companion devour the road. Like a pianist who leans back in rapture while his fingers unravel the most complex of sonatas, Herb Harris plays his Gold Star as if it were a Steinway.
And to listen to him play is to enjoy: "More than any British motorcycle, the BSA Gold Star was developed to its ultimate. Things like oval flywheels, different valve sizes, the Goldie was the playground for the engineers at BSA. Customers could just go out and race this bike. That’s partly why I believe this machine is more exotic than it has been given credit for." With 42 brake horsepower, and weighing less than 400 pounds, the Gold Star achieved speeds of up to 120 miles per hour, a heady velocity in its day.
Bitten by the motorcycle virus at 17, Harris remembers well his early romances with Italian sportsters and still reserves a spot in his garage for them. As his focus shifted to British fare, he flirted with the revered Broughs for a while, but was eventually seduced by the more visceral Vincents and BSAs. As the most astute of enthusiasts often do, Harris parlayed the rewards of his professional success-in his case, his law practice-back into his obsession. It has now become a very robust enterprise.
The Harris Vincent Gallery, which began as a small restoration shop, "now sells more Vincents than anyone in the world," according to Harris. "It’s also the only place in the world someone can get a 100-point restoration." The Gallery remains, however, something of an invitation-only club reserved for those potential purchasers vetted by him. All must pass the Harris test. "If someone is interested in buying one of our motorcycles, I really have to get to know them first," Harris insists. "I don’t want it to be that easy."
His relationship with the Gold Star also slakes his thirst for the unattainable. "I like old bikes because I like a challenge," Harris says. "The Goldie does that for me. To start with, most people can’t even get it running, because of the gearing. But it’s things like that, that sweeten the pleasure."
The flavor of that pleasure is echoed by Harris’ good friend Jody Nicholas, AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame inductee and former factory BSA racer. As he has been intimately acquainted with the Gold Star for decades, Harris invited Jody out to Austin to ride this perfectly restored version.
After a day of thrashing this classic, donning a vintage pudding-basin helmet, World War I goggles and white silk scarf for the photos that would grace this article, Jody Nicholas’ heartbeat was still audible as he shared his thoughts. "It’s almost perfect," he said of Harris’ Goldie. "This ride was a real sweet homecoming for me."
Nicholas recounted how the Gold Star had gotten its name. "Back in 1937, a fellow by the name of Handley did a lap of the famous Brooklands race track in England, doing over a hundred miles an hour on a BSA Empire Star. He received an award, which was a Gold Star pin. And that inspired BSA to create and name this bike."
"I started racing as a novice back in 1960, when I was just 16. I’d been working for a dealer in Philadelphia who offered me a ride," Nicholas reveals with wry humor. "The dealer asked me if I had a license and, as I was underage, I just scraped off part of my birth date on my birth certificate." He went out and won all the 250 races in which he competed on his BSA, and became the highest scoring amateur in 1961. "I went on to race the BSA for the next five years until I went into the Navy during the Vietnam War," Nicholas explains.
Nicholas talked about how racing was a very different world in those days. "We didn’t care about the money, we really cared about doing well," he says. "There was a camaraderie that just doesn’t exist anymore." The Harris BSA Gold Star served him well as he traveled through time. "It’s got those low, flat British bars, and the rear sets like the ones for road racing. I like the gear shift lever turned around, too."
The reverie unfolds as he shifts through his thoughts. "It wasn’t the fastest bike, but it was unique. With a wonderful power delivery and an exhaust note to match. And one of the most versatile bikes ever built, in my opinion." Nicholas explains, "You could get the bike with a trials gear set, a standard gear set, and a scrambles gear set, so basically the motorcycle could be built to suit your purposes. And there was a road racing gear box with four closely spaced ratios. It was a good super sports machine out of the box, and great for flat track too."
Riding the Gold Star requires a special touch, he adds. "Low gear is really like second gear on a normal bike, so it takes a while to get moving," according to Nicholas, "but once you get going, it’s really fun, especially if you take it out on country roads where you don’t have to slow down too much," he chuckles.
Nicholas remarks upon the level of development achieved during the Gold Star’s life span: "Having spent so much time around them, it’s an evolution that fascinates me. The bike is highly refined because the engineers just kept making it better and better."
His more-contemporary benchmarks include the Ducati Monster, the original Suzuki Katana and the Honda Hawk, all of which he owns and enjoys, while admitting the Gold Star has an ingredient that escapes the others’ scope. "It has a magical quality that touches something in me."
Harris grants that modern technology affords the motorcyclist a level of performance out of the box that exceeds most riders’ skill level, but he contends that enjoyment of the classics is fundamental. He compares the riding of a motorcycle like the 1954 BSA Gold Star to the interpretation of music on period instruments. "There’s much more to it than just getting there," he notes. As for those who believe that the value of a machine resides in the zeroes of its price tag or the amount of chrome per square inch, "Maybe people don’t ask enough of their motorcycles," he muses.
As Ezra Pound wrote, "The treasure is ours, make we fast land with it." Herb Harris makes fast land, and his own poetry, with the treasure that is his Gold Star.
Photography by Lee Klancher