Only 11 Cyclones are known to exist, the race bikes are the rarest of the breed.
Sitting in the L.A. family room of antique American bike aficionado Jeffrey Gilbert, one can taste the patina of precious metal leaking into the warm spring air. Shafts of gauzy sunlight seem to spotlight a large glass case containing several dozen neatly mounted motorcycle license plates representing the first 20 years of the 20th century. Close by, almost huddling in a corner beneath a framed poster of itself as seen at no less than the Guggenheim Museum exhibit is a banshee bright yellow racing motorcycle, its slab-sided, underslung gas tank emblazoned with the name "Cyclone." It's not the shade of yellow associated with gold, but we are in the presence of treasure. Placing a value on the 1914-15-ish, one-of-11-existing motorcycles is almost a moot point (like its exact birthdate), but one that must be made clear if we are to grant it the title of America's most valuable motorcycle. Pedigree plays a significant part in this quest or to use the term preferred by the high-end auction houses...provenance.
Documentation is required; a paper trail to the Holy Grail, dates, names, places. The difference between "original" and "reproduced" becomes more blurred as time goes by and prices escalate. Ever notice how many original Picasso prints are up for grabs on the internet?
The gas tank features separate fillers for fuel and oil; engine lubrication was assisted by the hand-pump while in motion.
The gas tank features separate fillers for fuel and oil; engine lubrication was assisted b
Better yet is an eyewitness. Best yet, a walking, talking direct genetic link to the hands that built the machine in the first place. That set of circumstances is about as rare as the motorcycle itself. But on this March Sunday afternoon, up in the hills above Sunset Boulevard and not far from the Getty Museum-another repository of rare works of art-an intersection of history is about to take place.
This writer has been invited to enter the eye of the storm, so to speak, and to document the occasion with words and photos. And I'm late to the party. Already spread across a large maple table in the adjoining living room are stacks of meticulously catalogued and boxed magazines, catalogs, sales brochures, old and newly minted books, all pertaining to the Cyclone. A mountain of material it seems when we're talking just 11 existing motorcycles. Jeff Gilbert is showing the materials to the recent arrivals: two men, two women, and about a hundred years of history. They would be father and son: Bob and Bill Sewall, and their wives Marlis and Robin, respectively, with their hosts, Jeff and Helaine Gilbert. To compress the introductions, Bob's father, Bill's grandfather, ran a St. Paul, Minnesota, company called E.B. Sewall Manufacturing Co., later changed to Sewall Gear Co., which was in operation from 1939 to 2009.
Jeff's got a dry sense of humor, but is also a serious guy with a big metal lathe in his garage and the skill to use it. He stands in front of me wearing a bright yellow Cyclone T-shirt, the exact T-shirt Bob is wearing. The two of them bookend Bill along with Jeff's Cyclone for one of those Kodak moments and a proud one at that, as it represents three generations of Sewalls.