What do you call a man's home when he's given over all available basement and garage space to the storage of obscure parts—original, aftermarket, salvaged, you name it—for esoteric British motorcycles that haven't been manufactured in decades? Before you answer, take into account the very large detached garage that contains a state-of-the-art shop and the owner's collection of some 60-plus Brit bikes dating back to the 1940s.
The owner, Conard Schultz, offers these hints: It's not a museum. It's not a business. It began as a hobby. And there are days when it seems to him something like a sickness; when he feels compelled to buy the inventory of some other parts collector getting out of the game, knowing full well that he already owns multiples of everything he's about to purchase.
"I just wanted the parts to build my own bikes," says Schultz, who began buying Triumph parts inventories from former dealers beginning in 1975.
"The first one I bought was in Albertville, Ala., in 1975," he recalls. "I got $30,000 worth of parts for $12,000. Depending on the shop, I could get their stock for anywhere from 20 to 80 percent of its value. I bought them in Memphis, North Carolina, I can't remember them all. I bought 14 in all."
The story of Triumph motorcycles is a melodramatic mini-series of its own. The first were made around the turn of the 19th century. The models most in favor these days were made in the 1960s and very early '70s. BSA owned Triumph during that period. "You know Plymouth and Chrysler?" asks Schultz, in order to clarify the relationship. "BSA was the Chrysler." BSA folded beginning in 1971. You are probably aware that a separate company, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd., related by licensing and a tenuous lineage, launched a line of bikes in 1991 using names and styling and logo art from the originals.
The largest market for Triumphs in the 1960s was America, though their gearing made them ill-suited to American roads. They were engineered with England's slow-going narrow lanes and winding country roads in mind, and were doomed to short lives in the states unless the owner was aware that the drive sprockets should be changed. They were more expensive, less comfortable, and lagging by years in modern features compared to Japanese brands gaining inroads in America. Many attribute the brand's demise to the stubborn refusal to incorporate electric starters until it was too late. The Japanese incursion removed any urgency from Schultz's systematic acquisition. These ex-Triumph dealers weren't going out of business, they were switching to Honda and Suzuki and their Brit parts were simply relocated to shed and closet space.
Now, of course, many of those parts are safely sorted and still in their original packaging under Schultz's house. He unwraps a piston and fondles it.
"That piston probably sold for $35," he says. "It's worth a couple hundred now."
The allure of Triumphs and BSAs remains pretty difficult to articulate. The old bikes look distinctive—in large part because they haven't been made in so long and repair parts have become collector's items—and have killer curb appeal.
Briefly, during Schultz's tour of his compound, he's joined by co-conspirator and fellow Triumph-nut Bobby Knight. When both are asked whether or not Triumphs are easy for a shade-tree mechanic to maintain and keep on the road, they make grim faces, like they've been asked about a favorite dog that recently met a bad end.
"No," says Knight. "They're not easy to work on. If you don't have a little bit of basic knowledge. You can buy the manuals. A mechanic on these British bikes is kind of akin to a piano tuner; a little weird. You gotta love it."
Regardless of what you may think of Triumphs as a viable vehicle, they remain popular among a large group of riders—and the parts necessary to keep them running are a commodity. Schultz enjoys his role as the purveyor of what amounts to extra years on the road for a friend's or stranger's Daytona or Tiger or Bonneville. He also enjoys the sport involved in the trade—which is kind of like a cross between poker and the brokering of original abstract expressionist art.
"Somebody will call up," says Schultz. "They'll say, ‘Hey I'm going to be coming through Knoxville in a couple days. Can I stop by?' I say, ‘Are you a collector?' If they say yes, the answer is no.
"A lot of the people who come figure this fellow's from Tennessee and don't know shit," he says grinning. "If someone comes to try to sell me something, it's usually because some friend told him, ‘Hey, that's valuable.' I tell him to let his friend buy the damn thing."
Schultz says that traffic is slow at the moment, what with the restoration of Royal Enfields and Matchlesses and BSAs and Triumphs slipping on most folks' lists of economic priorities. But lulls in the parts trade appear to be good for bike inventory. Schultz shows off three mint Triumphs in his shop that were assembled from his parts inventory over the winter. Yes, they are somehow simultaneously brand new and 40-year-old stock vintage.
In the shop, among his stable of bikes, Schultz is asked to revisit the affordability issue using examples at hand. Temptation on the part of the asker has become a factor.
"This bike," he says, "a 1967 BSA Lightning, would go for about $4,000."
It's a good-looking bike, with classic styling, slightly swept back, the beautifully exposed motor a mix of sculpture and jewelry and mechanical simplicity. It's neighbor, however, reveals the arbitrary nature of motorcycles and value.
"That bike right there," says Schultz, pointing to a Triumph with odd streamlining effects connecting tank to rear fender via trim along the seat, which Schultz arranged to have autographed by its designer, Craig Vetters. "That's a 1973 X75 Hurricane. They built 1,140 of them. It's really a BSA motor. The first two that came off the line had BSA on the tank. They found one of them, in a museum. We're still looking for the other one. That bike would go for about $20,000."