David Brown has spent thousands of hours and dollars restoring a motorbike he’ll never ride, and probably never even start.
The bike in question is a CCM motor bicycle, built around 1909, and one of just four still in existence.
Brown has been collecting and restoring antique bicycles and motorcycles for years; he has a small fleet of bicycles that date from the turn of the 20th century, including a high-wheeled penny-farthing. The collection of bicycles in his garage and basement are only a few of the many cycles he’s restored and sold over the years.
Brown got a lead on the CCM bike five years ago, when a friend walked into Elmira’s W.C. Brown & Sons menswear store and told him about a pair of bicycles listed for sale in Toronto.
Brown called the seller and enquired about the bicycles. One was a Massey-Harris bicycle, the man said, but he didn’t even know what the other one was. He described it, and Brown was intrigued; it sounded like a CCM motorcycle, which he’d spent years searching for.
“I said I’d be down in a week or so to look at it. And geez, that night I couldn’t sleep,” Brown chuckled. “I phoned him up the next day and said ‘I’ll be down tonight.’”
CCM only made motor bicycles for three or four years, and they’re accordingly rare. The other three remaining bikes are all in museums: the science museum in Ottawa, a motorcycle museum in Vancouver and a little museum in St. Mary’s, Ontario.
When Brown saw the bike, he realized it was exactly what he had been looking for and bought it on the spot, not bothering to haggle over the price.
What there was of it was in decent shape, but it was missing a number of parts, including a motor. It took Brown a year to lay his hands on an engine for the bike; the man who sold it to him finally decided he had too many projects on the go to have time for this one.
The motor is called a moto sacoche, or “motor in a bag,” and sits in a subframe that can be removed as one piece. Brown has a friend in Denmark – another motorcycle enthusiast – who built the subframe for him. The control levers were made in the Czech Republic by a man who does custom millwork, and Brown himself spent one winter making the oil pumps on an antique metal lathe.
The part that was hardest to come by was the magneto, an ignition system that uses magnets to power the spark plugs. Brown bought several of them, from Holland and from Germany, but neither was the right fit.
He made it a habit to check eBay for magnetos, and eventually he stumbled across one that looked right. Bidding was sitting at $25; Brown thought that was absurdly low, so he bid $215 and waited on pins and needles to see how high the bidding would go.
“About two minutes before it was over, I put it up to $500, hoping I wouldn’t have to pay that,” Brown said. “And I didn’t; I only paid $42 for it. Nobody bid on it.”
Brown said he got lucky because the listing didn’t specify what it was for; if people had realized what it was, the part could easily have gone for more than $500.
After five years, the motorbike is 95 per cent complete. The only parts still missing are the scooped metal covers for the motor, which Brown made a stab at replicating, but found too intricate. A friend of his found a pair in Switzerland, so he’s keeping his eyes open.
The bike is probably capable of running, but Brown has never tried to start it, saying the engine should be taken apart and completely rebuilt first.
“I would hate to fire it up and blow a rod and have a big pile of scrap,” he said.
If he can get the bike fully restored, Brown might see if a museum is interested in acquiring it. For him, the fun is in the restoration, not the finished piece.
In that, he said, he’s like any antique collector: “It’s the hunt. Once you’ve got it, what are you going to do with it?”