MY FIRST “REAL” MOTORCYCLE
by Al Born
Originally printed in the 2002 issue #15 of Still….Keeping Track
I received my introduction to motorized 2 wheelers in the summer of 1946 on my cousin’s new Whizzer motor bike. I was 12 and he was 13 at the time and even though this was a real genuine Whizzer with heavy duty spokes and such, my memory says that we pretty much rode it to the ground that summer. There is a lot of hills down there in West Virginia and even though that Whizzer ran pretty good, we still did a lot of pedaling, especially when we were riding double. Anyway, it was a lot of fun and I guess you could say that I “was hooked”. We rode that little Whizzer until it finally died near the end of the next summer. Then I just dreamed of owning a “real” motorcycle some day. I graduated from high school when I was only 16 years old and could not get a good paying job at that age. So, I guess you could say that I just kept on dreaming as I sure couldn’t afford a “real” motorcycle.
During the summer of 1952, one of my friends who was a couple years older than I bought a 1946 Indian. It was a large one with a 2 cylinder engine that was hard starting and very heavy. We pushed it a lot and rode it a little in some way or the other. It also damaged my cousins barbed wire fence (with her on it) and tore up about a half acre of my Dad’s corn field when it got away from my friends younger brother. In September of ‘52, my friend went into the Korean war, so the next month I came to Ohio for a better job. I went through some hot-rod Mercurys for the next 3 or 4 years, but the yearning for a “real” motorcycle never left. I finally got a good job at Ford in January of 1955, so I was soon thinking of getting my own two wheels with a motor. One day I was driving up Elyria Avenue in Lorain and there in a used car lot sat a pretty, blue, 1951 125cc Harley Davidson with a “for sale” sign on the windshield and I knew I had to have it. So, I used some of the money I was saving for my next Mercury and I became the proud owner (at least I thought) of this pretty blue Harley. Well, it just didn’t turn out to be the “jewel” that I thought it was. It had wiring/ ignition problems that I just couldn’t get all straightened out, so I spent some time pushing this “Dream Machine” too. The only good thing about that little Harley was that it pushed much easier than that old Indian that we had pushed around in those West Virginia hills. Thank goodness, fall finally came and I put that little Harley in the shed for the winter. Around February 1956, a guy at Ford that everyone called Cowboy and I were talking one day and he said that he had a 1949 45ci Harley with a 3 speed transmission that he wanted to trade for a small motorcycle. I began thinking that here was my chance to unload my pretty blue Harley. The “catch” was that his motorcycle had back-fired through the carb and caught it on fire. It had burned the wiring, seat cover and pad, rear tire as well as melting most of the paint from the gas tank. He led me to believe that I was getting a good deal, as the parts wouldn’t cost too much. So, we traded even up. I went to work and painted (by hand brushing) the gas tank while waiting for the wiring harness to come. It finally came and when I put it on, it started right away. It would start real easy when it was cold but not when it was hot. I soon discovered that the carb adjustments were warped from the fire, so I usually rode with one hand on the carb turning the adjustment screws, trying to keep it running half-way decently.
One evening Ralph Haslage came over to my house and he was riding a beautiful 650cc BSA twin. He took me for a ride and when he changed to second gear, my feet went up past his head and I knew for sure that this was a “real” motorcycle and I had to have one. The next evening Ralph and I went to Penton Brothers Motorcycle shop and they had a nice 1955 BSA 500cc twin. I talked to Elmer Reichart about trading in my Harley which he didn’t seem interested in at all. About that time John and Ike came into the shop and when Elmer told John about my Harley, he just laughed and told me that if I wanted the BSA I would have to buy it without a trade, which I did that night. That BSA became my first “REAL” motorcycle as far as I was concerned. I rode it a lot that summer and all of the next year which was 1957. Back then the motorcycle shop was open on Friday nights and a lot of guys spent their Friday evenings there talking motorcycles and drinking coffee with John, Elmer and sometime Ike and Ted would drop by as they were running the Machine Shop at that time.
In the late summer of 1957, Ralph took me to a Scrambles race at the Meadowlarks track in Amherst, Ohio. My most vivid memories of that day was seeing George Singler broad-sliding his BSA around the sharp turns while standing up. I had a problem believing what I was seeing. I remember telling Ralph while on the way home that if I could ride a motorcycle like George did that I would be the happiest guy in the world. Needless to say, George became my motorcycle hero on that day.
In the winter of 1957 and 1958, a group of us from Avon, Lorain, and Elyria organized the Avon Cycle Club which was in existence for 7 or 8 years. We rented a farm on Lunn Road in Strongsville and proceeded to build a Scramble track. One Saturday after we had finished grooming the track for our first race, the guys that had their scramblers there decided to have a little race to check out the track. I joined them with my “real” BSA street bike and to my surprise, I beat them all. My bike did have a nice set of STS tires which worked nicely on that track. Anyway, after that little deal, I knew I was hooked on racing and that there was no way out. Later on that summer, I bought a well-used 250cc Maico from Sills Motor Sales in Cleveland. My first official race was the “Buckeye Sweepstakes” at the Meadowlarks track and I was running second to Bud Ward in the feature race when my engine seized so tightly that it bent the connecting rod. I then bought a new 250cc Maico from Sills and I traded my first “real” motorcycle for a BSA 500cc B-33 model that I loved to race even though it was heavy and under-powered against the Gold Stars, Triumphs, Matchless, AJS and Velocettes. I would usually be in the top three and I even won a few times. As a matter of fact, I was able to beat my hero, George Singler a couple of times during the summer of ‘59. I know that one time it was at Alliance, Ohio, and I think the other time was at Mineral Ridge, Ohio. I know that both times I had trouble getting my “Big Head” into the truck when it was time to go home.
During the winter of 1959-60, Ray Sill who owned Sills Motor Sales told me at one of our CRA meetings that he was building a 650cc Triumph for scramble races ant that he wanted me to ride it. It sounded like a pretty big task, but my friend Bill Horton who was working for Ray at the time talked me into buying it. He knew it would be a good motorcycle as he had done some of the work on it. I traded the Maico in on it and took it home and put it in the utility room and began the chore of making it lighter. Ray had given me two “shorty” exhaust pipes for it and I put a moped gas tank on it. I used a BMW rear fender type of seat that I drilled a lot holes in the seat pan and removed most of the padding. Also, I bobbed the fenders, drilled centers out of shock bolts, axle bolts, and any other bolts of any size, and was able to get that monster down to 261 pounds. It was really fast and I geared it for 2nd gear starts which worked great for my weight. Counting heat races, semi-finals and finals, I raced that Triumph 36 times that summer and won 32 of them. I’m sure that I was into the first corner first all but five times out of those 36 starts. One of the wins was the “Buckeye Sweepstakes” race win that year at the Meadowlarks track in Amherst. The amazing thing about the Triumph was it’s dependability. My only work on it consisted of oil changes to the engine and one oil change to the forks, cleaning the air cleaner and spark plugs occasionally. It finally seized up at Norwalk as I was leading the last race of the year.
John Penton talked be into buying a used 175cc NSU that Norm Smith had traded in. He wanted me to try some Enduro riding in 1961. I believe that the NSU weighed about the same as my Triumph had. It was a rugged little motorcycle and I rode it on TT tracks and on Scramble tracks as well as a few Enduros. I was riding it at Smith Road Raceway in September of that year when I got my left leg all torn up by Tom Hodges’s rear wheel and sprocket and ended up in the hospital for a week. In December of that year, I rode a 75 mile enduro at Mansfield even though it was still difficult to walk. My NSU sheared the key in the automatic spark advance and luckily my friend Bill Horton came by. His big Matchless had started leaking gas, so we put my gas into his tank and he towed me to the next road because I certainly wasn’t able to push it. I only rode occasionally during the next four or five years thanks to Brown Warner and Bill Kennedy for letting me ride their BSA and Triumph respectively. I went through the Millwright Apprenticeship during this time and did not really have the time to do much racing due to a lot of overtime and going to school.
Then in March of 1966, John Penton talked me into buying a little Honda S-90. This was a time when Hare Scrambles was really coming into existence. We did some “trick” things (all legal) to the engine, lengthened the swing-arm 1 and 3/4 inches, stiffened the fork springs, installed some flat aluminum fenders and changed the handlebars and was ready to go. I rode mostly Hare Scrambles on it until the Pentons came out, but also did some Enduros and a few TT races (with knobbed tires). From April of 1966 until March of 1968, when the Penton come out, I was able to win my class over thirty times including a State Championship in 1967. Three times that little Honda won me overalls at Lagrange, Galion, and at Mansfield, Ohio on muddy tracks. I sold my trusty 90 to a friend at work in the summer after the Penton came out. His two teen-agers rode it for years until they broke the frame at a point where I had put a large hole for frame breathing. They kept riding it with the sagging frame until they finally collapsed the rear hub assembly. I sold the same man a Honda SL 125 in 1976 and he gave me back my little 90. IN 1981, I rebuilt that Honda with parts from a “parts bike”. The engine still ran great and does yet to this day. It was quite a reliable motorcycle, but when the Pentons came into existence it put my little trusty 90 into the antique class.
When the new Penton Six Day came out, I told John that I would wait until he made a 100cc so I could stay in the same class, but he insisted that I ride one of the 125s and he promised me that as soon as the 100cc engines were available that he would give me a new engine, which he did in August of that year. Anyway, I bought the very first Penton that was sold, its serial number being V003. I also had the honor of being on the first official Penton team which came about at the Berkshire Trials in Massachusetts. The team consisted of Leroy Winters, Tom Penton, Bud Green and myself. I guess that I didn’t realize it then, but I was riding with some high caliber people. I only got a bronze medal that year, but our team won the manufacturers award. That was the year that John Penton was the only gold medal winner on his Husky. I got to ride the Berkshire again in 1969 on the Penton team who again won the manufacturers award. This team consisted of Leroy Winters, Tom Penton, Doug Wilford, and myself. This time I was fortunate to be a gold medal winner. To this very day, I still have a feeling of pride for being on those first Penton teams and I am grateful to John for having confidence in me.
I kept riding Hare Scrambles, Moto-cross and a few TTs on that old number 3 Penton until May of 1970, when I purchased a new Berkshire 100 which I rode until the late fall of 1970 when I decided to leave it up to the younger fellows. I gave that Berkshire to my son John, who raced it up until 1976. He did a restoration on it in 2000 and he won the “Best Berkshire” award at the 2000 Vintage Days when the Penton was the featured motorcycle marque. My restored number three Penton was the featured motorcycle at Vintage Days mentioned above, thanks to the nice restoration job by Kip Kern. It is presently in the “Hall of Fame Museum” and is scheduled to be there until September of 2002. For this honor, I would like to thank John Penton, Kip Kern, Ed Youngblood and all the board members of the Penton Owners Group.
Many of you know, but some don’t, that I lived in the apartment over the Penton Brothers Machine Shop for four years (March of ‘67 thru March of ‘71). Having a nice place to work on my motorcycles, the use of the tools and especially for use of the power washer certainly made keeping my motorcycles race ready a whole lot easier, and for that I also want to “Thank” John and his family.
I used to wish that I had been born a few years later so that I could have raced the more modern motorcycles, but when I look back at everything, I just thank God for everything he allowed me to enjoy in the motorcycling world. Being a part of the Penton motorcycle development era and living at Pentonville while Tom, Jeff, and Jack were teen-agers and becoming young men were very interesting years. Sometimes I would take the boys racing when John was gone and sometimes I would sign as their guardian so they could race and guess what - they usually beat me.
Traveling with John was always an “EXPERIENCE” and I found out in 2000 when he, Paul Danik, and I went to Vintage Days West in California that John hasn’t changed a bit. For all these pleasant memories, I’ll be forever grateful to John Penton and for the opportunities he made possible for me.
I am currently serving as Secretary for the Penton Owners Group and enjoy meeting with the “guys” on a monthly basis. I feel very privileged to have been on the committee with Matt Weisman and Jack Penton as Mr. Youngblood was writing the “John Penton” book. I presently ride a 225cc Yamaha Dual-Sport which I occasionally take to West Virginia for a little trail riding. Also, I ride on the secondary roads around home a little, but not very much. The reason it is a Yamaha is because it is the only street legal off-road motorcycle that I can sit on and touch the ground. I have been fortunate to have owned several “REAL” motorcycles since buying that BSA from John, but it was the motorcycle from which I learned that it was more fun to ride them than to push them and work on then all the time.
HAPPY TRAILS TO ALL