Interview: Paul d’Orléans – “The Vintagent”
Sometimes, this Pipeburn thing really sucks. A new post every 48 hours. Every 48 hours. It’s truly never ending – like the mail. Screw going postal, sometimes we feel like we’re going Pipe-al. Or is that Papal? Whatever the case, it’s all too easy to view the constant search for new bikes as a chore rather than a pleasure. After all, we’ve got lives that are already full-to-overflowing. You just want a quiet Sunday night in front of the box, but instead you have to churn out another article for the hungry biking masses. Like me, tonight. After serious considerations about out-sourcing the whole dog and pony show to India I begin to trawl through the bowels of my inbox. Woah. Here’s some emails and an interview from Paul d’Orélans. Christ on a trike! I’d totally forgotten. Shoot – he’s going to be pissed we left it so long. Four months! Oh the bitter, burning guilt of the slack-ass-ed. I read through it. He’s a really good writer. This stuff is great. And just look at the bikes he’s owned. Damn – we’re so blessed to have guys like this on the blog. You know, sometimes this Pipeburn thing really rocks.
Can you please introduce yourself to the readers?
By sheer persistence, I’ve become the grand old man of moto-bloggers with The Vintagent, being at it for almost 5 years now, a lifetime in the web world. I find this hilarious, as I’ve been playing with and writing about old bikes for decades, but embraced the blog; electronic media has altered how people THINK about motorcycles, and has made previously arcane, private knowledge, suddenly free for everyone. There’s still the matter of finding and riding the actual machines though, and that process hasn’t changed much, except now you can be screwed by someone you’ll never see via ebay, instead of a smiling old cracker with a crankcase full of sawdust… and more’s the pity. I’ve met some real scoundrels in my day, and life is richer with such characters, they are the stuff of literature. I haven’t lost too much money to charming criminals, but I could tell you stories… I was young once, and very green.
Where are you right now? What’s happening around you? What are you doing after this?
At this very moment I’m sitting in a friend’s house in San Francisco, just home from the Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel, and then I’m on my way to the Villa d’Este Concours on Lake Como, my trip being sponsored by BMW. In between, I’m visiting my daughter, just home from college… she’s beautiful and a genius, far cleverer than myself – her work has already been in the NY Times, which is still an aspiration for me.
My travel schedule has its sacrifices, and I’ve had to adapt to a very mobile lifestyle, with a light footprint in terms of where I actually ‘live’, which is a room in Paris. To be frank, it took a huge effort to liberate myself from a daily job in order to follow what I love, which is motorcycles, writing, and the arts, both applied and fine. Travelling constantly means I am able to see and absorb so much more, meet so many people, gain insight into a much bigger picture of Motorcycling and related culture. All of this information is rolling around inside me, cooking, waiting for the right venues to come out, whether in articles, books, curating exhibits and shows, etc.
I haven’t been everywhere though; I’m hoping to be invited to the second Concours d’Elegance in Pakistan next year, want to see what’s going on in India, and need to kick around Japan and see a few significant collections.
Can you give us a brief history of PDO?
I’m a fifth-generation San Franciscan, although I grew up in Stockton CA, as my father was a professor at the University there (History of course, plus econ and business). As a geeky long-haired kid with glasses, with a mouth too clever for my muscles, school was generally a horror, and I sorted out how to leave early, exiting at 15 by taking community college classes at night.
I went to UC Santa Cruz in fine arts, being a painter like my grandfather, and leveraged my artistic skills by starting a business in faux-finish painting and murals from 1984 onwards. I developed this biz for 25 years, to the top of the game, but felt there was more for me to offer this world, and began to look for a way out.
I started The Vintagent in October 2006, on a whim; back then it was easier to leave a comment on Blogger if you had a blog, and ‘vintagent’ is a charming old English term for someone into vintage cars and bikes. I left a comment, by the way, on the Sartorialist, as I was ‘Miss October 06’ before the site became the exclusive domain of people working in the fashion business. Now Scott Schuman doesn’t return my phone calls.
You must have owned and ridden some killer bikes in your time. Can you run us through your favourites?
I’ve owned hundreds of motorcycles, as I had a ‘side line’ of what is now called Arbitrage; buying bikes cheap, getting them clean/running, and re-selling at a profit. My goal at the time, especially in the 1980s and 90s, was to buy the bikes which interested me, which were already becoming expensive. So I constantly ‘traded up’ from old BMW singles and twins, Triumph singles and twins, and a bit of everything else, towards a goal of prewar British racing motorcycles, which were my favorites, especially flat-tankers of the 1920s – Norton, Sunbeam, Scott, AJS, etc.
I bought my first Velocette in 1985, a ‘66 Endurance with very low miles which had crashed in a Louisiana swamp and been left idle since 1971. It was totally original, with a broken headlamp, and it looked bad, so cost me all of $600 at Munroe Motors. I rode it back within the day, after cleaning the carb and points; let’s say I was looked at sideways ever after, having had one over on the canny old dealer! The bike was worth $3500 even then. That bike led to a marriage with Velocettes; I still have it, and I soon bought a green Thruxton, ‘Courgette’, which I will keep until I can no longer ride it, it is as much part of me as my arm, and as comfortable. I did about 60,000 miles during our first 8 years, mostly when I had no car and it was my sole transport.
“it explodes forward
with a loud bang
and a shove in your back”
I bought my first Brough, an 11-50, in 1989, having read all the glowing reports in Classic Bike. Mine was scruffy but correct, and I am one of the few to actually ride a BS up the coast of Cali as kickaround fun, meaning, to bars! It was by far the most expensive machine I’d ever bought at $15k, but I soon got over the intimidation, and had fun with it. I found the limitations of the BS pretty quickly (bad brakes and limited cornering clearance), and was once found spinning sideways on the road, pivoting around the drive-side footrest, to the mirth of my riding pal on his Commando.
Still, they are among the most beautiful bikes ever, and I had to have an SS100, so sourced one from Argentina, along with two 680 ohv models. I rode many Broughs, attended many BS rallies, made a lot of Brough friends, but eventually realized I was truly a Sports rider, and not a Tourer, and Broughs are excellent touring machines, but not built for scratching around canyons. So, I sold them all, and bought more racing bikes; Sunbeam TT90, Norton flat-tank, Inter, and Manx, Velocette KTT, Scott TT, etc., and these I found suited me very well, being built for racing, robust and fast.
You’ve ridden Falcon creations. That must have been amazing…
I have a curious relationship with Falcon. To explain: I’m not a Custom bike guy, although I love all bikes, it’s just not been my bag, as to be honest I’m not attracted to an aura of retro-machismo and veneration of the Angels. Youngsters adopt the ‘look’ of a world they never experienced, which is highly romanticized, and best kept that way -through a rosy lens- rather than, when I was young, the organized drug world with associated murder and intimidation. Stockton, when I grew up there, was an ugly place, murder capital of the USA, and the Bikers were part of that scene, and it was not a good scene. I’ve never understood ‘thug chic’, but people have forgotten how the 1960s and early 70s felt in the hard margins. I grew up educated but poor and surrounded by drug dealers and gun-wavers, and had .45s pointed at me many times before I had hair on my face. Some of those people rode Harley Davidsons and belonged to clubs, and mine has been a slow process to overcome that association.
“I grew up educated but poor,
surrounded by drug dealers
But, in Falcon, I discovered people passionate about old bikes, altering them in ways I found really intriguing. As I got to know Ian and Amaryllis, I found two people I could relate to in different ways; Ian is like me an incurable obsessive old bike nut, while Amaryllis and I think very similarly on the place motorcycles can hold in our culture. I ‘got’ what they’re doing straightaway, and we stuck together like magnets from the get go.
Riding the Kestrel… well, the first time was a case of stretching an inch into a mile, I just sort of left the showgrounds at the Quail last year, having asked to take the Kestrel around the grass. After a slow lap on the field, the bike felt like it wanted a proper gallop, and I honored that feeling, so we had a few miles’ ride together, and like each other very much, thank you. She is bound to another though, and is a Supermodel I can’t afford to keep, just too glamorous for even my jetsetting lifestlyle, although I’m allowed to date her on occasion. She rides like my 1933 Velocette KTT racer, on steroids. Light, agile, fast, comfortable, with delicious controls, silky smooth, a dream. All that effort produced a machine which begs to be ridden. It is a shame she is just too valuable to ride much, as if I owned her, we would go places, and she would get very dirty.
The owner of the ‘Black’ has consented to let me test-ride her when she’s fully sorted out, which means Soon. Watch this space, as they say…
Any bikes that you thought were going to be completely horrible but were actually really good? Any classics that are complete bastards to ride?
There are so many horror stories about old bikes, ‘this one’s junk’ and ‘that one’s dangerous’, and there is usually only a kernel of truth deep inside a giant ball of bullshit. Very few motorcycles got produced which are ‘bad’; they all have limitations, but keep these in mind and adapt your expectations accordingly. The most important thing is, if you’re interested in buying a bike or just curious, go to an event like a club ride, and talk to an owner in person. You’ll meet a few stuck-up assholes, but the majority will be bike geeks just like you, happy to share what they love.
Any classic which is poorly maintained is a bastard. Poorly routed/lubricated cables can make any machine a chore, and downright unpleasant. I have only ever been physically frightened on one motorcycle, and that is Super Kim, my former 1924 Zenith with supercharged 1700cc JAP engine. There is nothing subtle about the bike; it explodes forward with a loud bang and a shove in your back. Strictly for the salt flats, not a slip road crowded with spectators.
Every time I see you in photos you are immaculately dressed. In fact you often remind me of T.E. Lawrence. How do you do it?
Are you asking for a date? I prefer girls, unlike T.E.L. In the sartorial stakes, my mother had her own fashion line, my grandmother was an editor at Vogue, my daughter has her own fashion line, so I grew up surrounded with good taste, and I listened. I’m a flea market junkie, a vintage hunter, and have been for decades.
I wasn’t going to mention this, but is that a ponytail I see on the younger you? Good to know your dress sense isn’t totally foolproof.
Busted! Youth is an excellent time to explore your ‘look’, and not care what anyone thinks. I was a blue-haired punk in the early 80s, working on ‘zines, then grew my hair long for many years. I lopped it off 10 years ago, and decided to dress like an adult.
You mentioned you were rationalising your collection, How many bikes do you own now, and how many did you own at the peak?
I’ve owned nearly 300 motorcycles, but never more than 25 at any one time. Two years ago I had 23 bikes, which included 9 Velocette KTTs from ’29 to ’49, TT-racer Rudges, Scotts, Nortons, and other very cool racers. Selling them was akin to walking through the fires of Hades; it changed me forever, as much of my identity was tied up in them. I now have three ‘you’ll peel them from my cold dead hands’ bikes; my ’33 Velo KTT (‘the Mule’), a ’65 Velo Thruxton (‘le Courgette’ – yes its green), and a ’28 Sunbeam Model 90 flat-tanker, which Mark Hoyer of Cycle World said was one of his all-time favorite rides when he tried it, and I agree. These 3 bikes don’t do everything well, but they are each very fast, reliable, handle impeccably, and will blow the doors off any machine burdened with a merely adequate rider, on a twisty road.
“I’m a poet at heart, and have
a very personal relationship
with the idea of motorcycling”
Most of us ride new(ish) bikes 99% of the time, and an a really old bike only a few times in our lives. You must be almost the complete opposite. What does a new bike feel to ride after months on bikes made in the first half of last century?
Utter perfection. And boring. I don’t want everything done for me, I want a challenge which proves my skills and abilities. There are perhaps 300 people on the planet who can ride a new sportbike to its limits, and only 35 places to do that without a death-wish level of danger. I like finding limits, I have scars from exceeding them, and I learned things about myself and the world in the process. Riding old motorcycles for hundreds of thousands of miles has informed my soul. What are you learning from a perfect appliance?
But that’s my bent; I’m a poet at heart, and have a very personal relationship with the idea of Motorcycling. I’ve devoted my life to exploring the questions I found while riding; what IS it about motorcycling, and what does it say about everything else in our lives?
What’s in the future for the Vintagent? Can we look forward to any “Vintagent” branded leather goods or L’eau d’Orleans aftershave in the near future?
Ah, branding. Yes, I have to make a living. I can no longer afford to give away The Vintagent, so you’ll shortly see well-curated ads on the site, from people I know personally, whom I consider friends and supporters, and whose products/services I actually use and endorse.
As for projects and products, I’ve been in serious talks with boot companies, riding gear firms, publishers, TV, museums, etc. Some of these talks will bear fruit! So the answer is, yes, but not aftershave… the beard stays.