Paul d’Orleans: Subculture of Speed
By Jeff Alexander
Author and motorcycle addict Paul d’Orleans works to capture the true essence of motorcycling while carefully balancing exhaustive research with his passion for moto culture. Having penned over a dozen books dedicated to sub-genres of motorcycles, d’Orleans’ ambition has him striving to delve deeper into a subject that continues to fascinate him. The Riders: Motorcycle Adventurers, Cruisers, Outlaws and Racers the World Over (Motorbooks) is his newest offering and aims to celebrate the worldwide love affair of all things two-wheeled and chronicles various riding groups and communities.
Paul’s previous book, Ton Up!: A Century of Café Racer Speed And Style (Motorbooks) captured race lineage and motorcycle subculture perfectly, dispelling myths surrounding the kustom road racers due to his unique experiences of owning and riding many of the rare bikes depicted. Putting him in a different vantage point, d’Orleans was able to not only uncover lost facts and anecdotes about café racers but to peel back the curtain and shatter performance myths of legendary makes.
“I was able to see a lot of the classic bikes living in San Francisco and there’s a strong population of riders that were in the new wave kustom scene with ‘60s and ‘70s café racers in the Bay Area. I was always really into Brit racers and owned a few hundred bikes over the years; Velocette, Triumph, Norton. I’m lucky to experience so many of them so I know what they can and can’t do on the road,” laughed d’Orleans.
In a subculture that celebrates speed, individuality, and breaking away from the mundane, d’Orleans was quick to note that the moto community also embraced carefully orchestrated appearances and imagery, while manufacturers often worked harder to create a bike’s perception as opposed to engineer its true performance. Additionally, d’Orleans’ excitement lies within the linguistics and tracing the slang that enveloped moto culture.
“It’s funny because at times, the term ‘café racer’ was actually used negatively to state riders taking a break at cafes were not true riders despite owning a fast bike. Of course that changed dramatically with the formation of The Rockers scene in the U.K. Researching deeper, I learned about ‘promenade percy’ which was slang for a dandy and someone that would use their bike to parade around for appearances at the seaside while the term café racer was relegated to more urban areas. I would scour old magazines and was so excited to see its first use in 1903 and even a brief return in the 1930s.”
Many believe the café racer subculture is strictly relegated to the U.K. and only during the youth rocker explosion of the ‘50s and ‘60s but again, d’Orleans traced the origins of café racers to the ‘20s, while proving custom bikes raced as early 1911 in Brooklyn. He credits Norton’s 1913 Brooklands Special as the trailblazer for factory-built café racers. Asked if there’s a certain irony for riders decrying that a true café racer cannot be made by a factory, all d’Orleans could do was laugh and dispel another myth.
“Factories building café racers is as old as the industry itself! Norton’s Brooklands Special was essentially a street-legal racer. Early on, people just wanted motorcycles to go fast, the thrill was always there and manufacturers took notice. Looking back, the beginning TT races on Isle of Man in England were very successful and attracted a lot of people. Manufacturers are always competitive and the success of the races sparked many street-legal race bikes that were affordable.”
Additionally, the new accessibility of motorcycles allowed women to embrace the new world of vehicle independence and d’Orleans succeeds in chronicling early women racers, pioneers of the track and rebels of the road that history may overlook.
“Women were always there and a part of it! Racers like Anke-Eve Goldmann were certainly talented and raced in the early ‘50s but she was denied a formal racing license in Europe because she was a woman. There was ‘Little Little’, a rider and member of The Boozefighters, Ace Café regular Jenny Burton. There were many and unfortunately, history isn’t always inclusive,” sighed d’Orleans.
Anke-Eve Goldmann was portrayed by Marianne Faithful in the ’68 film Girl On A Motorcycle but was opposed to being depicted onscreen as a ‘sexual icon.’ Directed by Jack Cardiff, the film was based on the novel The Girl On The Motorcycle by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues.
As motorcycle sales took an uptick thanks to successful race events and burgeoning motorcycle clubs, manufacturers took note of the modifications by ‘street tuners’ and employed additional individuals with race backgrounds to aid in their engineering. BSA’s DB34 Goldstar is a perfect example of a well-tuned, factory-built racer and reinforces D’Orleans’ statement that factory-built racers were as old as the industry itself.
“There have been a lot of amazing machines over the years built directly by the factory. From Brough, Velocette, Vincent; They had incredibly engineered motors but I never thought they handled well. BSA’s DB34 Goldstar is a perfect example of a good performing, factory bike. It’s a fantastic motorcycle for speed and performance but I think the Velocette Thruxton stole the mantle from it because no BSA would do 100mph for 24 hours because the crankshaft was a weak point. Vincent is certainly important because their bike held top speeds unmatched for decades.”
Nostalgia has certainly played a key role in the preservation of these classic rides. Without dedicated historians, owners, and enthusiasts these machines would be relegated to scrapyards. Nostalgia can also contribute to the creation of new niche markets, perhaps more often than not that create inflated prices and values on these coveted rides that continue to enjoy their permanent place in moto culture.
“I have to disagree with that narrative because vintage motorcycles are cheap! Very few models could be considered expensive, but here's the thing - those models were always expensive. From when they were new, to the secondary market, to the collector's market decades later, bikes like Vincent twins, Brough Superiors, racing bikes, were always out of reach for the ordinary buyer or were they?”
He continued, “When I started buying such machines in the 1980s, I was a successful - not rich - painting contractor. You can find letters to the Vintage Motorcycle Club in England from the 1940s, not long after the Club was founded, complaining of high prices...like £20 for a Brough Superior SS100!”
Additionally, d’Orleans has attended several exhibitions as well as serving as an event judge since the ‘90s. Despite motorcycles being a passion, it seems people may overlook historical significance and focus more on dollar value. Are these exhibitions pricing people out impacting the hobby?
“I'd like to demolish the bullshit notion that motorcycle prices have gone out of reach. Regarding today's market: we passed a peak on vintage bike prices about 5 years ago, when a 1959 Triumph Bonneville cost $28k and a 1952 Vincent Black Shadow cost $180k. Now those same bikes will set you back $18k and $80k, respectively. What rising prices? Prices are falling for most machines, as hundreds of thousands of older motorcycles survive, and the number of people willing to buy and care for them has dropped dramatically.”
He added, “Is that because they 'got expensive'? Clearly, they haven't, so it must be something else. The introduction of addictive digital technologies is the death knell for the old bike, old car, old plane, old anything hobbies.”
To further serve as an ambassador for moto culture, Paul continues overseeing The Vintagent. Started in 2006 on the heels of the blog’s popularity, he sought to create an engaging community of writers, artists, photographers, and researchers that could pool their passion and knowledge under one banner. Paul reflected on the site’s rise to prominence.
“I made my living as a decorative paint contractor but within a few months The Vintagent hit the heady readership of 500 unique visitors per day and in 2010 it became a full-time gig and led to regular writing for print magazines. In truth, the writing made my living, but The Vintagent was the best calling card a writer could have.”
For d’Orleans and other authors, it will always be a challenge to translate the symphonic sounds and roar of a well-tuned motor into words or to portray exotic riding scenery to readers between the constraints of margins but within The Vintagent, he has successfully captivated an audience by sharing his lifelong passion, a passion echoed across the world and now documented in The Riders: Motorcycle Adventurers, Cruisers, Outlaws and Racers the World Over.