The problem is, according to master craftsman/restorer Steve Huntzinger, that it’s almost impossible not to “over-restore” things like the 1936 Crocker you’re looking at here. Even when you’re working with what’s commonly referred to as the Duesenberg of motorcycles, it’s easy to overdo it with a level of perfection the original never quite achieved. There’s always the temptation to polish or chrome what wasn’t—the spokes, for instance. Who knows when in the last 74 years they were replaced, but whatever miscreant did the deed used four-flat spoke nipples. Wrong! Huntzinger had new two-flat nipples made for Crocker #14 and bead blasted them. No chrome, no polish. Engine cases get tumbled in some sort of sodium mixture that gives the look of the original casting, along with various bits of aluminum trim. And for God’s sake, don’t chrome what should be nickel plated or vice versa.
Then there were the chain adjusters to think about. The old ones were beyond saving and new ones hard to come by, so Huntzinger’s son made new ones from steel blanks, just like the originals, and those were cadmium plated, of course. The generator’s not the original one, but now it has the correct serial number stamped on the correct blank plate, in the correct typeface, of course. The Champion sparkplugs are new old stock, 1936. A Willard battery box is not an easy thing to find, and an even harder thing to restore—but this one’s perfect. Or looks like it would’ve been perfect in 1936.
It helps that Huntzinger had already restored five other Crockers and knows who to call, but it still seems slightly amazing that he was able to track down this bike’s original Linkert carburetor and restore it to its original manifold. That’s a partial listing of the small stuff. Then it was time to build a new exhaust system, using photos and other Crockers for templates. For Huntzinger, who also restored Burt Munro’s Indian and many other high-end machines, it’s sort of all in a day’s work. In the end, what you’re looking at, they tell us, is the world’s most perfect Crocker, which also might make it the world’s most expensive motorcycle. World’s most expensive production motorcycle?
The most important man to call if Crockers are your thing is a retired high school teacher/administrator in La Mirada, California, named Chuck Vernon, keeper of the Crocker Registry. It’s not a thick tome, since there are thought to be only 68 surviving original Crockers rolling around, and maybe 25 complete engines.
Born in 1922, Vernon was apparently brought into the world to share information: He spent the entire Big One stateside training flight crews, training gunnery crews, teaching radio schools and radar crews (when they got around to inventing radar) for the Army. As of 2010, his brain is also “the reservoir of knowledge” when it comes to Crocker motorcycles, says Huntzinger. And Huntzinger, Vernon says, “doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘shortcut.’ He’s not just a master craftsman, he’s also a student who learns all he can before proceeding.”
Huntzinger’s technical ability came together with Vernon’s first-hand encyclopedic knowledge to build what serious collectors agree is the reference standard Crocker, the closest thing to what Al Crocker and crew hand-built in their Los Angeles factory/foundry in 1936, a motorcycle for posterity.
Vernon owned a ’37 Harley-Davidson 61, and at some point during his travels went on a ride with a guy on a Crocker, swapped bikes for a while and never forgot the experience. Most of the V-Twin Crockers were also 61 inches (though built to be easily bored-out up to 90 c.i.), but they made a bunch more power than contemporary H-Ds and Indians of the same displacement. According to Vernon, a stock Harley or Indian was good for around 95 mph, while a stock Crocker could do 110.
Al Crocker knew how to make power; his Singles were the scourge of speedway racing for years before he turned his attention to big twin-cylinder “touring bikes.” Not just fast, the Crocker was just plain trick, too, with its gearbox housing built as an integral part of its steel tube frame, and a tricky, cast aluminum gas tank. Number 14, the last one produced in 1936, was also the last “hemi-head” Crocker built. The hemi’s splayed valves were closed by external valve springs that had a few problems. Later versions got fully enclosed, perpendicular valves.
In any case, so the lore goes, Al Crocker lost money on every bike he built, what with starting out in the middle of the Great Depression and giving people free upgrades and repairs and things. Selling for around $550 new, the typical Crocker commanded about a 10-percent premium compared to its H-D and Indian competition. Just enough too much in the middle of the Depression, Vernon thinks, to keep them from becoming really popular. (That, and maybe that there were only like 100 ever built.) After switching over to the more lucrative production of airplane parts during the war, Al Crocker, for whatever reason, never did get around to resuming motorcycle production after it ended; Crocker Twins were produced for just six years, from ’36 to ’42, but they weren’t forgotten by the loyal few who owned them or rode one.
After WWII, Chuck Vernon settled happily in SoCal and went to work as a high school teacher, riding the great postwar suburban boom and riding his old ’37 Harley to work with a teacher buddy of his on back, as unusual then as today. It was the only motorcycle in the faculty lot for sure, he says. La Mirada was just slightly removed from the shadows of the defense plants that many people theorize sort of spawned the whole hot-rod movement. Or did those plants and the climate just attract pre-existing gearheads?
One of them was Ernie Skelton, a truck driver who happened to live around the corner from Vernon. Skelton was also a helluva salesman, Vernon recalls, endlessly proselytizing as to the superiority of the Crocker until the already susceptible Chuck was also ensnared in the Crocker web. In 1965, Vernon bought Crocker #39 for $365. In ’68, Skelton bought a Small Tank model for $50. In 1970, Vernon drove to Henderson, Nevada, with a truck and trailer and dragged back “five or six bikes and a bunch of parts” from a guy who’d got the last batch of Crocker stuff from a former Crocker employee named Elmo Looper.
Five or six? Chuck, did you ever have any idea what these things would be worth? “Of course not,” says Vernon, “otherwise I’d've kept every one of them. Although Ernie and I did often commiserate as to why such a great-performing, beautiful motorcycle didn’t cost more than it did…”
Then again, you can’t put a price on the good times Chuck and Ernie had riding around on their Crockers while they were still just nice motorcycles. It was Skelton, in fact, who began the Crocker Registry, and when he passed on to his reward in the mid-’90s, he passed the Registry on to Vernon. As a matter of fact, the bike you’re looking at was originally restored by Skelton at some point and went away, only to re-emerge less than a decade ago in the Chicago area, whence it was repatriated to California and restored once again to its current immaculateness. Like the collectors are so fond of observing lately, we don’t own these things, we’re only stewards of them for a while (and all the better if we can make a killing on ‘em).
Well, it’s all about supply and demand, isn’t it? And when you combine rarity with the natural animal attraction of a high-performance motorcycle and the David and Goliath tilting windmills aspect of the Crocker saga, what you’ve got on your hands is a Hollywood blockbuster. According to Don Whalen, who’s in the business of brokering these kinds of deals (a good business to be in, it seems), The Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Guggenheim 10 years ago legitimized motorcycles as collectibles. Then, what happened to really spur the market was the death of Los Angeles publisher and collector Otis Chandler. The Chandler Collection’s Crocker #55 (also restored by Steve Huntzinger) sold for $236,500 at auction. Then in 2008, ex-Boozefighters President Jack Lilly’s cool old green-and-white Crocker sold at auction for $300k.
As for Crocker #14, we were even more careful with it than usual during its brief stay in our studio bay. After leaving us, it was crated up and shipped directly off to its new home somewhere in Louisiana, to live with an unnamed collector who prefers to remain anonymous. The sale price, we’re told: 350,000 semolians. Such a shame you so often have to be deceased to see your dreams come true…
Are there lessons to be learned? Of course. All other things being equal, it’s probably better to be wealthy. How you get there is up to you. Hedge funds are so passé. But collecting rare, expensive motorcycles lately seems like a reasonably good bet. The time has come for something tangible you can toddle out to the garage to visit on an evening, and fire up in a cloud of expensive cigar smoke and Scotch fumes—ahhhh, the corporate pirate’s life for me. (Or not. Word is, the new owner in Louisiana immediately encapsulated his new Crocker in a dehumidified chamber, probably a good idea given the climate.) Say, does anybody know how many Buell 1125RRs were made? You might want to throw one in your shed. And sit on it for 63 years or so…
Here’s to Al Crocker for doing the right thing, and to Chuck Vernon and his pal Ernie for making sure nobody forgot. Two pistons up!