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The Obsession: John’s Motorbikes

At Oliver Sweeney, we have an obsession for traditional craftsmanship, and for blending it with modern design. And while we know that if you’re reading this, you definitely share our obsession, but that there are also plenty of other things out there that inspire passions to rival the Cobbler-in-Chief. With that in mind, welcome to our brand new editorial series: an exploration of collections that sees us delving into sheds, garages and spare rooms to unearth hidden stories of obsession. First up, we meet a motorcycle collector who definitely doesn’t keep his bikes locked away, and 1 op 1 stone island is about to part with one of Steve McQueen’s original machines.

When did you first get interested in motorbikes
Probably from being a kid and growing up in Manchester, really. My brother liked motorbikes and I always used to try and ride his – more often than not I ended up falling off them. He had an Ariel 350 that I specifically remember falling off! But for me, it was all about the feeling of freedom more than anything else. For me, freedom is really important in whatever you’re doing. In your work life and especially in your private life, I think it’s more difficult to be free these days. Anyway, the obsession stayed with me, even though I didn’t ride for another 20 years or so…

Moto Guzzi California II 1000cc: “It was made for the US market as an alternative to Harleys; a bit of a tart’s bike to be honest, but the engine is amazing. It’s like sitting on an old rocket”

By which point I was working in the record business down in London, and I knew a guy called Tracy Bennett – a famous A&R guy who had a great record for signing talent. I went to see him one night (I was trying to get some work for a record producer that I represented) at the Windsor Castle in Notting Hill. He had this bike parked outside, a big white Italian Moto Guzzi, and I said “that’s an amazing bike”, and he said “yeah, I’m thinking of selling it”, so I said to him straight away “I’ll buy it”. And that was how the collection began.

How many do you have now And do you find the time to ride them all
I have six in total. And I do actually. They don’t all run at once though. The old Royal Enfield I’ve pushed more than I’ve been on it! I’d compare bikes to pipe smoking – you spend more time trying to light them than smoke them.

Royal Enfield Bullet 500: “It’s probably done 100 miles, and I’ve pushed it 30 of those. The most unreliable bike I’ve ever owned.”

I spend quite a lot of time riding abroad – not so much in this country because the weather’s usually no good – especially in India. In India, the Royal Enfield was the bike that dominated the country and it kept going, despite being made to slightly questionable engineering standards! They work perfectly with Indian culture though – the people there are so resourceful, they’ll go out of their way to fix things, and mess around with them to get them going all the time.

How about the roads there
I won’t lie, the roads are terrifying. It’s absolute madness. In some ways it’s one of the reasons I ride in India, because you don’t need a crash helmet. It’s quite nice to be able to do that, even though people will say you’re stupid if you get knocked off your bike. I’ve fallen off my bike in India, had a crash in India, and as you can see, I’ve still got my head. I think it depends how you ride – if you’re a completely a lunatic, you’re going to have an accident. Whereas I think if you’re pretty smart and you ride to the conditions you find yourself in, then you should be OK.

BMW R1150 GS Adventurer: “This was the model that Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman used on the Long Way Round. After the trip, BMW realised it was far too heavy and changed their bikes to be much lighter”

So your approach is very different than the weekend riders in the English countryside
Well I have done that. But I’m lucky enough to be able to go and ride in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Vietnam, and I think it enables you to see the country and the people in a different way.

Do you travel on your own
Initially I went with a client (Matthew Wright, of ‘The Wright Stuff’ fame), and he didn’t want to go, because he thought that he’d get ill – in that typical British first time first timer way. But he came along and had a great time, he didn’t die or get Delhi belly, and then he became a convert.

It’s supposed to be like that with bikes isn’t it You try it once and then you just love it…
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s like marmite, really.

KTM 1150 Adventure: “When KTM were asked to sponsor the Long Way Round and turned it down, they made this as a riposte to BMW. It’s ridiculously fast – a cross between a racing bike and an off-roader.”

What do you look for when you’re looking to add to the collection
I bought a Yamaha VMAX a few years ago, and it got nicked from the West End. I’d only left it for half an hour, and I’d only had the thing for 3 months. It was an amazing bike, almost like a chariot. I wouldn’t mind getting one of those again! For now, I’m quite enjoying the ones that I’ve got.

Have you ever been a member of a motorbike club or anything like that
No, I wouldn’t go down that organised route at all. For me it’s about getting a bike and hoping it goes and just heading off! Next year I’m going to Mongolia – just to get out into the wilds. There aren’t that many places like that you can go to any more, wildernesses. I remember the first time I went to India, compared to what it is now; it’s full of dual carriageways and all those things that take the charm away.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about bikes so far
Always carry a puncture repair kit. Or join the AA! I’m definitely not a mechanic.

1934 Indian Scout Sport: “This used to belong to Steve McQueen, and it’s been in our office reception for a while now. It’s time for it to go to a new home.” [Images from Bonhams.com]

Is there a bike you wish you’d purchased
Yes: a Vincent Shadow. They’re about £130,000 of motorbike which is ridiculous, but something like that would be fantastic to ride. Normally the bikes I use are pretty cheap, and I can just get on with enjoying them. It’s one of the reasons I prefer old bikes actually, they have a certain spirit that you don’t tend to get nowadays, a maverick spirit and an independence.

What’s your favourite time to ride
In India, first thing in the morning, just as the sun’s coming up.

You can see the Indian on Bonhams website here ahead of the sale on 18 October.