Not long ago, John Paulson at CNB pointed the writer toward the Snowy Mountain Trading Post. It took but a few minutes inside the door before friendly, white-bearded Larry Steuben invited me to his museum to look at his amazing collection of vintage motorcycles. I took a brief tour - hardly long enough to appreciate what Steuben has gathered together at the old bank building up the street.
But, my visits with Larry did pique my interest. A few days later, I discovered a video at Midtown Market starring Anthony Hopkins (one of my favorite actors). “The World’s Fastest Indian” tells the story of a motorcycle fanatic in New Zealand in the 1960s. Even in his own 60s, Burt Munro was passionate about his Indian. He trained it and himself sufficiently to make speed records at Bonneville (Utah) Salt Flats. He put his 1920 cycle to over 200 mph in 1967. A great actor, a fine movie and a fun story. The movie gave me hints about the 62-year-old enthusiast who collects, repairs and cherishes a large number of grand British motorcycles in Harlowton.
While Larry Steuben never did 200 on his cycle or go to Bonneville, he did put an early bike up to 130 mph when he was a kid racing other kids around Central City, Nebraska. He has another claim to fame. When he was a teenager, Steuben made a round-trip to Archer on a BSA standing on the seat with his arms outspread like wings! Total miles were 27. He did get down to make the turn around.
Larry admits that he can get a little wild about his cycles. “It was a little scary, but I was a bit crazy.” Steuben got “a little goofy” over a Matchless G12CSR in 1965. Goofy enough to get married. *
Larry went to the bank in Fort Collins, Colorado, to get a loan to buy the cycle, but without luck because he was single and moving from construction job to construction job. “But, it would be different if you were married,” the banker said. That was enough to get the knot tied. In 1979, Larry was forced to sell another Matchless to obtain a divorce. *
Larry Steuben seems to have been a “learned-it-on-my-own” mechanic. Back in Nebraska, his father would find young Larry working on some machine or motor he had taken apart. Father Steuben would ask what he was doing. “Oh, I’m just fixing it.”
Dad would say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But, that didn’t slow Steuben down for very long. Larry Steuben has always been into machines and motors and cycles. Collecting them was just second nature.
These days, collectors are largely the only people interested in vintage British cycles: AJS, BSA, Indian, Matchless and Triumph. (Although Triumph cycles are being manufactured again and “are going great guns now.”) Parts are hard to come by. And, a person has to really hunt to find them or the cycles that go with them.
But, there are “thousands of enthusiasts around.” Larry belongs to a number of clubs: AJS and Matchless Owners’ Club of England and its North American Section, Antique Motorcycle Club and the Northwest Section, Montana Vintage Motorcycle Club, and American Motorcyle Association.
“Modern motorcycles have their place,” but Larry will stick with the vintage ones. He does have a 2003 Indian which is a real beauty, kind of a hybrid of vintage and modern cyclery. A new company in California restarted production of Chiefs and Scouts and Spirits in 1999 after purchasing the Indian trademark, but went bankrupt when it lost a major investor. Indians will hopefully be back in production in North Carolina in 2007. (Prior to the recent manufacture, the Chief was last built in Italy in the early 70s, and last in the states in 1952.)
How does the new model ride? “Oh, I love it. I can sit on it with my feet on the ground and be in control. The Harleys were always too tall - until recent changes. Indians already come with parts that Harley enthusiasts add to their cycles. Like S&S motors.”
The obvious question is why did the classic British cycles disappear? Seems like many reasons: competition from the Japanese, changes in tastes, speed, etc. During World War II, the Matchless provided 350 cc cycles by the thousands to the Allies. The Matchless was the largest producer of motorcycles at the time.
After the war, marketing had to be rethought to attract civilian buyers. The best advertisement - at the time - was in winning championship races, like the famous one on the Isle of Man. Matchless and AJS had been the most consistent winners in the speed and endurance contests until the Japanese cycles appeared. British cycle engineers couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up with the engineering changes which the Japanese made every year to their machines.
So now for the most part, British vintage motorcycles are history. From time to time, vintage motorcycle association members pool their monies to get certain needed parts manufactured. “We trade some, use eBay for buying and selling. A lot of us make our own parts. But, I don’t have the facilities for making machined parts.”
Vintage parts and vintage cycles wouldn’t be mere history if Larry’s dream ever comes true. Win the lottery or get a big loan from Ted Turner. He would purchase the Matchless marque, buy the old roundhouse in Harlowton and begin to build cycles and parts. “We’d put this town back on it’s feet. You bet we would.” *
For now after retiring as an IBEW journeyman lineman in the spring, Larry runs his Snowy Mountain Trading Post where he sells rebuilt cycles and other vintage items. He also repairs a variety of customer motorcycles and engines. Steuben has his own cycle museum - for the moment, in the old bank building on the top of Central. The cycles in the museum are not for sale, just for viewing on special occasions or by appointment.
What if he sold the several cycles and other items he has on display at his shop? “Oh, I’d go out and by more vintage parts and a cycle or two. Ah, I’d like to have a 1959 Matchless G50.”
Larry has lived in Harlowton since 1980 when he came to town with the Commonwealth Electric project putting up power lines from Ryegate to Townsend. He has spent quite a bit of his time on the road from California to New York.
Now when he’s not cycling or repairing, Steuben goes to shows and swaps. Life beyond motorcycling involves grandkids and their sports and activities.
How much time does he spend on the road? “Back when I was riding the Matchless in the late 60s, I’d run from Central City to Denver or Iowa on a weekend. Now, I like to go on club trips - 200 to 300 miles - for meetings and picnics.”
How many cycles does Steuben have? “About three dozen keepers. And, about 300 for salvage and parts.”
Won’t he ever run out of machines to work on? “About the time I think there won’t be any more cycles, one appears at an estate or I run across one in my searches. You never know where a great vintage cycle will appear. And, it could be Matchless.”
* Thanks to Ralph Beer for his Big Sky Journal article “All Over Again: British Bikes and a Montana Youth Revisited . His story gave me a starting point and ideas for this one.