Motorcycle Treasures

Inside the catacombs of Morristown's Motorcycle Salvage and their collection of cycle junk

Who you gonna call when you rash up your GSXR or need a fuel tank for a '65 Yamaha Big Bear scrambler? Since 1976, local vintage motorcycle enthusiasts and riders of more modern machinery have sought out Motorcycle Salvage, whether searching for that rare part listed as NLA on the dealer's parts CD, or to replace expensive breaky-offy bits from modern sportbikes and cruisers that failed to keep the shiny side up.

For riders finally giving up on a project bike or saying goodbye to a totaled machine, the dark catacombs off Montvue Avenue in downtown Morristown are often the last stop. Whether ridden, rolled or dragged in, no bike or bits are turned away.

In the well-lit showroom where customers enter the building, there are used bikes and new Chinese scooters on the floor, a service department, and new parts and accessories for sale. A few nicely unrestored old bikes are displayed against the walls on steel racks. But the draw for gearheads has always been, like the sign says, the salvage. The further from the showroom, the older the bikes get, and, appropriately, the darker the huge rooms are in the once-condemned furniture factory. Faintly illuminated by a few dusty fluorescent fixtures are hundreds of fuel tanks and exhaust systems hung on the walls and metal rafters like in some heavy-metal slaughterhouse.

Except for a few pieces of high-dollar sportbike plastic and some electrical bits that are removed from the carcasses and shelved, parts shopping at Motorcycle Salvage is "you-pull-it." Recommended equipment for a shopping expedition includes tools, flashlight (or coal-miner's headlamp), old (warm) clothes and sturdy footwear with oil-resistant soles. Even after Memorial Day, this not the place to wear white.

But as grown-into-the-floor as some of the bikes look, they've only been entombed here since 1997 or later. This ancient-feeling place is Motorcycle Salvage 3.0, or maybe that should be 4.0, if you count the original Adams motorcycle business, Cycle Inn, a chopper-building shop Jake and younger brother Jim Adams opened around 1973. "We would go to Florida and buy [Honda CB] 750s, because you couldn't find them around here, bring them back and chop 'em," Jake says. They wisely kept most of the stock parts they removed.

"We'd take off the forks to put on extended ones. Then someone would crash their bike and we'd sell them the leftover forks," Jake says. Used and salvaged parts became the primary business, and a 35-year enterprise was launched. A chopped CB750 in the showroom serves as a roots reminder.

The first location (and eventually the third, as well) to bear the name "Motorcycle Salvage" was located in the Buffalo Trail area of north Morristown, in a building the Adamses still own. Because it was smaller than the two later locations, some of the parts bikes were stored outdoors. The salvage yard operated from that location from 1976 until 1987, when the Adamses bought a hulking tobacco warehouse on South Cumberland Street in downtown Morristown. The size of the place allowed the inventory of parts bikes to grow and be stored indoors.

Jim made buying trips all over the southeast, buying parts bikes, shop inventories, and running machines. The tobacco warehouse filled up, and during the '80s a lot of bikes considered highly collectible now were just used bikes, or junk. The main entrance housed the sales counter and some of the more collectible bikes, like a Yamaha TA125 race bike above the front door, and a brand new CZ motocrosser still in the dusty crate in the center of the showroom. Around 20 antique cars were also housed in one of the many rooms, this one marked with a "Do not enter" sign.

The basement was where the really old grubby bits lived, along with watchdogs, so exploring the dark rooms carried two additional risks besides impaling yourself on random handlebars or other pointy bike parts: dog piles and fleas.

Highlights of the basement included a nearly complete Penton ISDT replica, a Suzuki RE5 Wankel-engined bike, and a Model A pickup whose bed was filled with a mountain of carburetors.

Over the following 14 years, all empty space in the building gradually filled and many a motorcyclist went home clutching that oily piece of unobtainium to complete his special project. The ride ended on May 26, 1995, when a fire completely engulfed the warehouse. Fueled by accelerants in the bikes' fuel tanks and crankcases as well as timbers dried for half a century, the fire was incredibly hot. What was left was a swimming-pool shaped hole that had been the basement, filled with ash and melted metal.

A photograph of the fire scene, with a tanning salon's "Tan Your Buns" sign in the foreground, ran in the Morristown Citizen Tribune and was featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The writers undoubtedly chose the photo for the humorous sign in the foreground, but Jay, ever the gearhead, voiced regret for the loss of 5,000 motorcycles and 20 antique cars. Jake and his wife Kathy cried for two days. "I think I drank two gallons of wine, too," he says.

After the mourning period, they started over. Because they owned the property (and the adjacent church building) Jake and Jim at first planned on rebuilding a smaller building at the same South Cumberland Street location. But the plan ran afoul of the city. "They didn't want any bikes stored outside downtown," Jake recalls.

So they went back to the Buffalo Trail location, which they still owned and where outside bike storage was not a problem. "We had one motorcycle and an order of helmets that came in right after the fire," Jake says. A lot of Jake's personal collection, including around 80 antique cars, was sold to fund the rebirth of the business. They resumed buying bikes and bits, and went back to work. They soon again outgrew the original Motorcycle Salvage location, and in 1997 bought the shuttered furniture factory on Montvue.

A second generation of the Adams clan is now running the salvage operations: James, Jim's son, runs the parts business and the showroom. James does a few things differently from the way his dad and uncle did. When a group of carcasses are picked clean, the frames are loaded up and taken to the recyclers. "We never threw away anything; we'd save bolts," Jake says. Most customers who come through the doors are seeking sportbike plastic and other modern-bike parts, according to James, "But interest in the old stuff picked up when gas got expensive," he says.

Jake has an office in the back of the huge building from which he manages the motorcycle service business and runs a small car lot. Some of Jake's personal collection of goodies are stashed around, like a rare 1966 Honda CB450P (P for police) once used by the Morristown Police Department, an Earles-fork BMW twin, and a six-seat rollercoaster car. "They used to chase us around on that thing," Jake reminisces about the little white cop bike. Outside on the lot, fresh from the Morristown Christmas parade, was Jake's 1957 Flxible bus, converted into a motor home. In true lattice-of-coincidence fashion, Jay Leno is also a Flxible owner.

Jim opened a separate business, Jim's Cycle Sales, a used bike shop operating out of the familiar Buffalo Trail building, and some complete bikes move back and forth between the two locations. Jake, Jim and James all still ride motorcycles.

The fire scene on South Cumberland, beside the bright white Life Center Church, is almost completely healed over, marked with a "Clean Fill Wanted" sign. Beneath the tall weeds, in the sandy dirt washed by recent heavy rains, along with the cigarette butts and gravel rocks, there are rusty bolts, shift return springs, sprocket retainers, and other artifacts from Motorcycle Salvage 2.0.

Not only was the fire an incalculable personal and business tragedy for Jake, Jim, and their families, it also constituted a significant reduction in a non-renewable moto-resource. The supply of interesting and collectible motorcycles available for restoration or parts is finite, and May 26, 1995 marked a permanent reduction in East Tennessee's supply of that resource.

But the barns, garages and basements of East Tennessee contain dusty moto-treasures yet undiscovered. When they are finally brought into the light after their long sleep, Motorcycle Salvage will welcome them all.