Ted Bloomfield | MCS | Classic bike dealers | British bike market
The classic bike world is continuing its decline. There's little doubt about that. Take a look through the back issues of your favourite publishing poison and see for yourself. Fewer and fewer people are riding, or even starting, their bikes these days. The quality, and quantity, of autojumble merchandise is at an all time low. Blue chip bikes are, okay, fetching higher prices than ever. But these mechanical cash cows, which have all but become the new gold standard, are even more rapidly disappearing into air-conditioned garages and vaults, rarely to be seen again in the wild.
And overall, the buzz and excitement that used to permeate the classic scene has fallen to a low, deathlike pulse that you can barely feel anymore.
The classic bike trade, once the backbone of the corpus delicti, isn't fairing much better. True, there are exceptions. In fact some dealers are claiming to be enjoying their best years in ... well, months (which often secretly translates as; "I thought it was going to be a lot worse than this ..."). But overall, trade is down—and was going down long before the world market collapsed at the end of 2008.
An international army of ebay fifth columnists has laid siege to our wallets, and dealers who were once as solid as a Gold Star kickstart have disappeared off the radar leaving a lot of ugly, toothless gaps in the smiling face of the classic community.
Such as Alan Mountain in Yorkshire. Or Freddie Frith in Lincolnshire. Or Copes of Birmingham. Or Percy Spokes or Joe Glazebrook in Northampton. Or Anglo Bike in Reading. Or Lewis and Sons in Surrey. Or Bob Joyner in the West Midlands.
And it isn't merely a provincial thing. Lost London dealers include Pride and Clarke, Richard Hacker, Cleaves, Godfreys, Gander and Gray, Kays, Harvey Owen, Pratts, and Newton & Smyl (see the important note below!).
The list reads like a roll call of veterans of The Somme. You can almost hear the bugles playing.
Some of those dealers are gone because, fair enough, they're dead. And most, if not all of them, became classic bike dealers not by design but by default, metamorphosing from contemporary to classic as the tide of progress came in around their ankles and finally drowned them in a sea of unwilling change.
Dealers such as Ted Bloomfield of MCS in Leytonstone, London (pictured above); a man who rarely had a good word to say about anyone unless it was behind their back. Ted kicked-off trading in the mid 1960s flogging AJS, Matchless, Triumph and BSA parts at a time when the survival of the British bike business was, like time travel, still a theoretical possibility - which of course didn't stop what was left of the industry drinking itself into oblivion in the last chance saloon.
In the seventies, Ted found a new niche in custom accessories, and once had shuffling queues of bikers anxious to get their hands on twisted springer forks for their freshly butchered Squariel, or a coffin tank for a Vincent lowrider resplendent in TT bars, forward foot controls, and purple metalflake.
"The steamroller of history had blithely ground another dealer into the dust."
When the eighties dragged on into the nineties, business leaked like a cabinet briefing and Ted found himself increasingly sidelined in an East London cul-de-sac, another victim of "white flight"; by-passed by the controversial M11 link road and surrounded by Afro-Caribbean hairdressers and Asian takeaways, none of whom had much use for a clutch cable or a carburettor.
Ted ought to have adapted and moved with the times (which is easy to say, but a lot harder to do when the times are moving faster than you can run). But instead, he adopted a kind of commercial siege mentality and lost the urge/knack/nous for making any serious money.
He went to the grave not long after leaving behind a huge repository of largely uncatalogued spare parts and quietly pulled his coffin lid down on another chapter of British motorcycling history (MCS is still in business, incidentally: 0208 534 2711).
And there was Jack Gray of Gander & Gray, a Royal Enfield specialist who occupied a small premises not a million miles away from Ted Bloomfield's. Jack Gray, for a time, was practically Mr Royal Enfield. I remember that shop well because as a kid I regularly decorated the window with my grubby mitts and saliva promising myself a bright red Interceptor some day - a bike that was then priced at around £1 per cc. But when I returned not so many years later half-intent on honouring my promise to myself, the shop was full of bathroom fittings. And that was that. The steamroller of history had blithely ground another dealer into the dust.
Meanwhile, other traders (mentioning no names) have gone to a different kind of hereafter and have quietly emigrated, unable to accept the changing, multi-cultural, service-industry face of modern Britain with all its petty, tyrannical, self-righteous, sanctimonious politically correct rules and regulations.
"It's just not my country anymore," I remember one such dealer telling me. "So I'm selling up and effing-off to France."
Or maybe it was Spain. Which made no sense at all until I realised that for many, it's easier to be a Brit abroad than a Brit at home, if only because you can be a minority in your own neighbourhood with having to feel guilty about it. Meanwhile, the surviving members of the classic bike community are going to the wall faster than peasants in a Mexican revolution. Or so it seems.
It's not just the dealers, of course. Most of the great personalities of the Golden Age of British Motorcycling are also dead and gone and patiently standing in line to have their names preserved forever on a blue plaque; people such as Doug Hele, Bert Hopwood, J.A. Prestwich, and Val Page (Edward Turner, Phil Vincent and Bert Greeves have already got theirs).
All we can do is to look on in regret and dismay as we count own our declining years and grimly watch the survivors whilst placing mental bets with ourselves on who's next in line to fall from the perch.
Death (like taxes) is all perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of. And progress will always ultimately have its wicked way with us.
But it doesn't have to happen sooner rather than later. Plenty of dealers are shuffling off this mortal ignition coil not through age or infirmity, but simply because they're unable or unwilling to adapt and survive. They've reached that pivotal point in their lives when un-learning something comes a lot more readily than gearing up their minds and bodies for fresh intellectual and physical assaults, an age when anything with the word "new" in front of it is treated with suspicion (such as New Labour, for instance: see what I mean?).
Some of these dealers are pretty useless, of course. And one or two are outright crooks. But most are decent enough traders and/or engineers with years of experience, each and every one of them vital links in the classic drive chain that is rattling away back there sorely in need of adjustment and lubrication.
New ways of trading are, as mentioned above, part of the problem. The globalisation of the classic marketplace has thinned the crop leading to a diminishing supply of resaleable bikes.
But the online parts-market is, arguably, a much bigger issue and is something that will ultimately finish off the classic bike scene unless something is done about it.
That's part of the reason why you can't go to your local autojumble and get what you want anymore.
It was sold online.
And that's why you can't get a decent quality part even when you do (reluctantly) go online.
The part in question is simply rubbish because it was sold on the net direct from a sweatshop in mainland China or India that built it to look right and feel right, but not necessarily to function right - which invariably costs a little more money, thereby eating into vital profit margins.
Classic bike dealers around the world are watching in horror as this digital marketplace claws a greater and greater share of their business while their local councils nibble away at the other end with more and more outrageous rates demands.
These dealers are watching it happen, day in day out, constantly fielding calls from potential customers complaining that the item they have is too expensive and that they (the customer) can get it elsewhere a little cheaper.
One dealer recently told me that he'd had a good week and had turned over around £1500, which was close to the kind of money that Ted Bloomfield once turned over on a good day (and this being back in those heady wonder years when you didn't have to slip out in the small hours with a length of plastic pipe hoping to siphon off a few gallons from your neighbours lawnmower to feed your classic riding habit).
Factor in the aforementioned local council rates, rent, heating, lighting, a living wage, postage, stock depreciation, a little shoplifting - plus the cost of the stock itself, which isn't getting any cheaper what with the rising price of steel, aluminium and rubber, and you begin to wonder if that dealer has been sniffing a little too much brake cleaner.
There are, after all, guys in rags sitting outside cash machines in Camden Town making a better living.
The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. Not for everyone, anyway. It could be different. Not like the old days perhaps (because the great supplies of original factory parts ran out yonks ago - and the dead are still soundly dead). But modern traders don't have to take it on the chin as armies of digital dealers and online mercenary merchants continue to import all the oriental rubbish that, one way or another, is going to find its way onto our bikes.
Classic bike dealers can fight back by getting online too, and doing it in a big way. They can't win on price. That will always be a dead loss. So they'll have to fight this new campaign on the battleground of quality and experience. They'll have to re-educate Joe Public about the true horrors of buying imported rubbish, which accounts for most (but not all ) of the classic gear currently on offer. They'll have to regroup and work together to dissuade buyers from daring to buy parts of dodgy provenance.
You can't tackle it all. The world of "knock offs" is growing and will continue to grow. And some people don't care what goes inside a bike engine as long as it runs for long enough to move it onto a new owner.
But that still leaves a lot of ground to be won.
And it starts by getting online, which is something that a worrying number of classic bike dealers haven't bothered with. Mistakenly, they think it's too complicated, too expensive, too time consuming. Which it doesn't have to be. It does require that you put a little thought into it, however. It does require that you learn a few new skills (but nothing that you couldn't teach a five year old in a few days). It does require some serious mental shifting.
Chances are, many of the dealers who take Dr DeFazio's Online Cure-All Potion are going down anyway. There are any number of reasons for that, and there's always a process of natural selection that favours the strong over the weak. But in the main, the strong have an online presence, and the weak don't. And that's going to be a major deciding factor on who goes to the wall and who prevails.
And when the network of useful, intelligent, helpful, hands-on dealers and engineers goes down, it all goes down, the whole scene. Don't say you haven't been warned. And if any classic bike dealers are reading this, take note of where you're reading it.
Note: We're pleased to say that contrary to information received, Newton & Smyl are (at the time of writing, late 2010) still in business. You can contact Ned Smyl on: 0845 2263134. Or find him at: Unit 6, 37 Briscoe Rd, London, SW19 1AH. Apologies for getting our facts wrong.
—Danny DeFazio (sometime in the noughties)
Copyright Sump Publishing 2013/2014