12-10-20 Update: I’m updating this post six years later because (as pointed out in the comments by Russell A) Steve’s listed his Green Frame Ducati on Bring A Trailer! Bidding is currently up to $65,000 with 6 days to go. Good luck to Steve, and find the listing here in Grafton, Massachusetts!
Steve Ross is an absolute gearhead – once you hear about his collection, you’ll understand why I’m so excited to have him as a reader. After I featured a Moto Guzzi V7 Sport for sale a few weeks ago, Steve added some wise words in a comment that made me think he was worth hearing more from. So I pinged him with the usual questions – enjoy some great answers from a guy who clearly loves motorcycles!
How did you get started with motorcycles – how did you learn, and what was your first bike?
I’ve always had a fascination with bikes and cars and I have no idea where it came from. Neither my father nor my mother had any real interest in them. One anecdote may provide insight as to the genesis of my interest. When I was around four or five we lived in Garden Apartments outside Philadelphia. There was a gentleman who lived across the way who had an MGA coupe. I remember going there several times in the morning, watching him put on his toupee and then he would take me for a ride in that MGA. That was about 55 years ago but I remember it as though it was yesterday.
My first bike was a Vespa 125 that I got when I was 13 or 14. By then we lived on a cul-de-sac and I would ride it round and round. I replaced it with a Honda Super 90. I taught myself how to ride; there was no such thing as the Motorcycle Safety Foundation back then where you could learn how to ride from certified instructors.
What bikes do you currently own?
I currently have a 1974 Ducati 750 Super Sport “Green Frame” that I’ve had for 34 years.
Originally a race bike campaigned by the first US importer, Berliner, I restored the bike 15 years ago. It still looks pretty damn good if I say so myself. The bike gets ridden, not nearly as much as I’d like but it’s not consigned to my office or den as so many of them have been due to the insane values that they’ve achieved. The best way to describe the bike is that it feels “alive”. I know that’s a trite description but when I ride it there’s something about the bike that is different from any other bike that I’ve ever ridden. The only other vehicle that gave me the same feeling was an alloy bodied Ferrari 275GTB that I was lucky enough to drive years ago. Recently, in a moment of weakness I almost sold it but it was actually my wife who talked me out of it. She rightly said that once it’s gone it can never be replaced and that I’ve had it longer than I’ve been married. In the end I just couldn’t part with it. When I die I’m certain that it will be listed at Bonham’s before my body even has a chance to cool.
I also have a ’72 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport. It’s one of the earlier bikes (not a Telao Rosso) with right-hand shift complete with a Heim-joint linkage, timing gears instead of the later bikes’ chain and a four-leading shoe front brake that could be construed as art. Guzzi spared no expense in building these machines. Koni shocks, Borrani aluminum rims with stainless spokes and Bosch electrics were all standard equipment as were beautifully forged clip-ons that could be adjusted for height over a several inch range changing the feeling of the bike from that of a tourer to a café racer in a matter of minutes.
Two features that I like are the electronic petcock that opens automatically when the car-type ignition switch is engaged and the courtesy lamp under the seat that illuminates the area when the seat is raised. Nice touches. I’ve had the Sport for almost twenty-five years and I remember being extremely disappointed the first time I rode it. I already had the Green Frame at that time and I was used to the thunderous torque that bike generated and I was expecting something similar from the Moto Guzzi as that too is a 750 V-Twin. Nothing could be further from the truth. I remember reading an article years ago which stated that the V7 Sport had the most radical cam ever installed in a Moto Guzzi production bike. I don’t know if that’s a fact but I can tell you that the bike is relatively lifeless below 3500 rpm’s at which point it comes on the cam and rockets towards the redline with a vengeance. The shifting certainly isn’t Ducati smooth but once in the upper ratios you can play the lever pretty easily. Weighing in at almost 500 pounds it’s hardly a lightweight but once the bike takes a set it is a stable as they come. It’s also a great tourer spinning at only 3700 rpms at 75 mph.
The third bike in my garage is a ’66 BMW R60/2. Even as a kid I had an appreciation of these bikes. While all the cool guys were racing around on Sportster XLCH’s and 650 Bonnevilles I used to take the “T” into Harvard Square and admire the Teutonic black machines at BMW of Cambridge, Boston’s premier BMW dealer. It took me several years to find one but I eventually bought a totally original R60 from an old friend of mine who had it stored away in his basement.
The paint is 99% original and it has some nice bits on it including an original Bowman finned deep sump, genuine period Albert headlight mirrors, Weinmann aluminum rims and a complete factory tool kit including the Victoria tire repair kit in its aluminum tin. The /2 is such a refined bike and when you consider they were introduced in 1955 they must have been a revelation. While British bikes were littering roadsides with parts the /2 would just purr along with nary a sound keeping their vital fluids inside where they belong, unlike their British counteparts. Mine consistently starts with one kick whether it’s been sitting for six days or six months. Incredible.
The rest of my bikes are projects waiting to be brought back to life. I have a ’66 Vespa 125 which is a duplicate of my first bike, a Honda S90 which is similar to my second motorcycle and a ’67 Ducati Mark III with factory clip-ons, rear-sets and all the goodies that make Mark III’s/Mach 1’s so special. The final bike in the brood is a ’76 Harley Davidson FLH with a fresh 93 inch S&S motor. In over forty years of riding I’ve had many bikes but I’ve never owned a Harley. This one fell into my lap and it’s going to be my first Hot Rod. I’ve always restored motorcycles which is very rewarding but it doesn’t exactly engender creativity. You’re constantly striving for “correctness” down to the last detail. You cannot deviate from the original specification if you want the motorcycle to be done “right”.
I have an idea as to what I want the Harley to look like but a friend who found the bike for me and who has several vintage Harleys said that it will go through several permutations before I have the bike I want. It’s going to be “slammed”, that is lowered 2″ front and rear, it will be converted to a “suicide shift” model which means it will have a hand shifter on the left side of the fuel tank along with a foot clutch where the shifter previously resided. I want to paint it Stone Grey which was a special order Porsche color back in the ’50’s with black spoke wheels. A dark green leather single seat will complement the paint nicely.
Some of the more interesting bikes that have come and gone include a Bultaco Metralla RS America with racing kit that I restored and rode on the street for a few years, a sandcast-case Ducati 750GT, a beautiful bike that I sold shortly after finishing my SS, a Kawasaki H2 750 with Bill Wirges expansion chambers and clubman bars, a genuine factory Dunstall Norton 750 (shoulda kept that one), a Ducati Paul Smart Replica SportClassic to complement the Green Frame (I thought it would be cool to have the tribute model next to the original but I put a total of 400 miles on it in three years; it was absolutely torturous to ride),
a Honda CBX 6-cylinder, a BMW R1100S and several other less notables including a Honda CA77 305 Dream.
I also have a couple of old cars including a ’58 Porsche Speedster and an ’87 Porsche Carrera.
I should also mention my sleeper: an ’01 Crown Vic with Police suspension, 3.73 gears, Mercury Maurader MAF and a Blue Oval performance tune. It lays rubber from here to Sunday and it looks like an 83 year old guy should be driving it. My wife won’t ride in it. Truly awesome.
Assume for a moment that money is no object, and importation laws aren’t a problem. What’s the next bike you’d buy, and what would you do with it?
Just to be clear, you’re stating that money is NO object, correct? I would have a Honda RC166 6-cylinder 250 GP bike from the 1960’s. What would I do with it? I would be happy just listening to the damn thing, never mind riding it but ride it I would. It would be like giving a Stradivarius to a chimp but it would be fun to do a Parade Lap around the Isle of Man on it. They’re absolutely fascinating machines and some of the details and technology found in the motors has had current motorcycle engineers scratching their collective heads in disbelief at some of the things Mr. Honda thought of 50 years ago.
What’s the most memorable motorcycle trip you’ve ever taken?
I’ve never been a touring kind of guy so I would have to say the most memorable rides for me were back in the early ‘80’s when I lived in Northampton, MA. About 10 miles north of town was Route 116 which ran from Deerfield to a hilltop town called Ashfield. I’m guessing it was a 10 or 15 mile ride but my friend Terry and I would strafe that road, me on my SS, Terry on his Ducati 750 Sport at stupid, stupid speeds in the early evening. Back then the road was traffic-free, smooth as a billiard table and it was just curve after curve punctuated by short straights so it lent itself to that kind of riding. We’d feather our tires to the very edges. In retrospect it was a very stupid thing to do but I still smile when I think about it.
Do you listen to music while riding? If no, why not? If yes, what are some of your favorite tunes when you’re on your bike?
I just read your interview with Frank Charriaut and I echo his sentiments. The sound of the engine is the only music I need to hear. I don’t even listen to music in my cars anymore. When I got my Speedster it had no radio (you couldn’t hear it even if it did have one) and I found that it was relaxing just driving and listening to the engine.
It also gave me time to think. If I’m by myself on a summer evening I’ll occasionally turn on the Red Sox. There’s something about listening to the game while motoring along in your car on a sultry summer evening.[Editor’s Note: As a fellow Red Sox fan, I feel obligated to share my favorite ESPN 30 for 30. Sorry, Yankees fans:]
What’s your favorite piece of gear?
My Barbour International waxed cotton jacket is by far my favorite. I’ve had it for years and I’m only an hour from Barbour’s service outlet so every few years I drop it off to be rewaxed and spiffed up and it always comes back as good as new. One other piece of equipment I’m enjoying is my first open-face helmet in thirty years. Bell started making white open face helmets like the ones back in the ‘70’s so I bought one. Obviously, it doesn’t offer the protection of a full-face helmet but it opens up the world in a way that I had completely forgotten. I find myself taking it instead of the Arai full-face.
You have $25,000 to spend on anything in the world of motorcycles – 1 new bike, several old bikes, track days, a trip, you name it. How do you spend it?
I’ve coveted a Honda RC30 for some time.
I think they’re fantastic bikes and when you factor in their pedigree and the fact that they were hand built in Honda’s race shop it’s a unique package. How can you not like a street bike with a 70 mph first gear?
It seems that the newest bike you’ve ever owned is a R1100S (which ended production in 2004) – what is it that draws you towards older motorcycles as opposed to the newer stuff coming off today’s manufacturing lines?
I guess I like the lines and the character of older bikes. I’ll go into my garage and just stare at my 750SS for long periods of time moving my chair around so I can take in several different perspectives. The lines are so sensuous from the rounded engine cases to the stunning curves of the fuel tank. There’s not an awkward angle on that bike and it’s something only the Italians could have done. It’s been called the most beautiful motorcycle ever made. I certainly think it is.
Too, I like the fact that starting many old bikes is a production. To get the SS going you open the petcocks and watch the gas flow through the green translucent fuel lines until the fuel stops. Then you push down on the “ticklers” found on those early Dell’Orto pumpers to prime the carbs. The next step is to find top dead center, turn on the ignition switch and kick away. If the bike is properly tuned one or two kicks is all it takes and then you take in the glorious sound of the Conti “silencers”, a misnomer if there ever was one. I’ve never ridden a Vincent but all those handlebar levers intrigue me.
THAT must be an interesting bike to get going. I remember the owner of a bike shop where I worked had a Velocette Clubman. Now this guy was an experienced motorcyclist and sometimes that damn Velo just flat refused to start. He would break out in a frigging sweat. It was a challenge getting those old bikes going.
What do you expect from the future of motorcycling, good or bad?
Honestly, I’ve been predicting the end of motorcycling for thirty years so it shows you what I know. When the Kawasaki Z1 came out I remember remarking to one of my co-workers at the bike dealership that it was criminal to sell such a powerful motorcycle to the public. I think it made 74 rear wheel horsepower. I used to marvel at the fact that a 16 year old kid in Massachusetts could take a 20 question written test at the Department of Motor Vehicles, obtain his learners permit and then walk into any bike dealership and buy the fastest bike in the shop. That’s still true today, BTW. In this age of the Government trying to protect us from ourselves motorcycling is still the Wild, Wild West. Anyone can plunk down the entrance fee and buy a motorcycle that accelerates as fast as a Formula One car to 60 mph and can positively annihilate any Supercar in the world up to 150 mph. It’s just insane to me. In Germany it takes a year to obtain a motorcycle license and used to cost the equivalent of $3000. I’m sure it’s higher now. Contrast that with the aforementioned Massachusetts law and I can’t help but feel astounded that the Insurance Lobby hasn’t put an end to it. But again, I thought that was going to happen 30 years ago.
Photos courtesy of Steve Ross.