The Past is a Motorcycle
In Bob O’Brien’s garage, in the York neighborhood known as the Nubble, there stands a motorcycle that, manufactured sometime between 1936 and 1955, is just a few years older than O’Brien himself. The bike is a single-cylinder, 500cc Birmingham Small Arms M20 used primarily by allied dispatch riders during World War II. Over their production cycle, about 124,000 M20s were made; a lot of them—because the bikes are relatively easy to work on and fix—are still running. O’Brien estimates that in Maine, there are perhaps a half dozen. The rest are scattered around the world, from Canada to Myanmar.
O’Brien’s M20 is painted sky blue. A few years ago, he bought it off a buddy who lives in an old reconstructed factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
“The guy had been keeping it in his bedroom,” O’Brien says. “He was clearly a bachelor.” But O’Brien noticed that his friend’s restoration project had begun to stall. “He’d moved it about two feet in the last fifteen years,” O’Brien recalls. “Then, I see it’s in his living room. ‘Paul,’ I said, ‘why don’t you sell me that?’ And then Paul says, ‘What’ll you give me for it?’”
Although O’Brien, a retired military and commercial helicopter pilot who grew up in the house next door (the house built by his father, a superintendent for the postal service), has always considered himself “more of a jeep guy,” he’s worked on motorcycles, and cars, and engines, and lots of other things, “ever since I was a kid.”
“When I was 16, I was driving around in rattletraps. Back then, the only way you could get around was you had to get things to work.”
On the back wall of O’Brien’s garage hangs the grille of a military jeep with a grinning marionette hanging out the window and a portrait of Elvis, during his military service in Germany, in the passenger seat. Next to the M20 there is also a 1970’s BMW that O’Brien is working on. Above the bikes, hanging in the rafters, is a 100-year-old canoe that O’Brien restored a few years ago. In addition to jeeps, motorcycles, and boats, O’Brien has restored Ducks—the kind of vehicles that give tours around Boston—and a handful of planes.
“It’s just that, you know, these old things, they got a story to tell,” O’Brien tells me while we’re standing inside his garage on a sunny but frigid afternoon in mid-January.
O’Brien’s garage, too, has a story to tell. On his workbench are stacked a dozen or so manuals: a Complete Guide to Auto Repair from 1986, Principles of Automotive Vehicles, Universal Service Manual, and a few Haynes Manuals for older-model Ford Rangers and Explorers. There are ratchet sets and grinders and jars of bolts and rolling trays of remanufactured carburetors and magnetos and dynamos. Hanging along the ceiling are dozens of license plates from across the country that O’Brien has pulled off jeeps or motorcycles that he’s bought over the years.
But the story in all of this stuff isn’t merely a mechanical one. Dressed in a leather pilot’s jacket, it’s easy to imagine O’Brien as a Maine version of Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie Gran Torino: a man of an earlier, braver America when the myths of our nation’s virtue were founded on simpler and more dignified principles. And while O’Brien remains silent about the details of his personal past, a more general history—a more manual, reliable, self-reliant, and self-made one—hangs in the cool air of his garage like the faint smell of grease and tools, and ocean water rising off the coast. From the end of O’Brien’s driveway, you can see the shimmering source of that final salty smell through a line of million-dollar homes in various states of construction. O’Brien’s house, miniature in comparison, and without the sweeping, presidential views, seems a last stand—for what, it’s hard to say.
Within minutes of talking to O’Brien, one begins to feel that what he’s up to with this M20, in the privacy of this garage, is about something greater than merely restoring an old motorcycle. And yet putting that mystical something into words seems also the best way to kill its spirit.
“See this?” O’Brien says, handing me a hunk of steel—a remanufactured M20 dynamo—about the size of a tall boy of Budweiser. “This is worth about 800 bucks.”
Some of the M20’s other fixings that O’Brien has accumulated since he started this project: the original map case used by M20 dispatch riders. “Some guy in Australia found a crate with about 30 of them. Unused!” O’Brien then shows me the small arrow symbol on the case’s flap: “That’s a broad arrow. Every piece of gear in the British army had one of these,” he tells me.
Also: the original tool kit that fits into the M20 engine body, which dispatch riders were taught to use as part of their training. All the bolts on the M20, and all the wrenches in the tool kit, are threaded, O’Brien tells me, to Whitworth dimensions: an imperial unit of standardized measurement used specifically by the British. Buying the tool rolls are quite expensive, so O’Brien has often made his own Whitworth wrenches by grinding down standard or metric wrenches. “With a file and a grinder, you can jury rig it,” he says.
About 2 p.m., Mike Pearson, of Sanford, stops by O’Brien’s house on his way to his job at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Mike has a handlebar mustache, wears a newsboy cap, and sometimes participates in World War II re-enactments. The two men have forged a friendship out of their common love of restoring old things. Mike has an M20 also, and on his phone he shows me pictures of “her:” she’s green, olive drab, the original color of the bike that O’Brien will probably paint his own M20.
Within minutes, O’Brien and Pearson are talking shop. They’re making offers to trade gear, and they’re looking over parts of O’Brien’s M20. “I got a mess of carburetor spares if you need one,” Pearson says. “And I got a nice early gear box if you need a rubber boot.” Pearson picks up O’Brien’s dynamo. “Damn,” he says solemnly. “That’s a nice find.”
“Hey Mike,” O’Brien says to Pearson, but gesturing to me. “I was trying to remember what kind of guns the riders carried, so I can tell this guy for his story.”
“Number four, Mark 1 Lee-Enfield,” Pearson says without pause. Briefly the men argue about what clips would have been used in the guns, as Van Halen, and then Mötley Crüe, plays from an old stereo in the corner.
If O’Brien is the kind of collector who “tends to move stuff along,” Pearson is the kind of collector who “likes to squirrel things away.” But between them, there is a lingo that seems as specific to their art as the Whitworth measurements are to the M20’s bolts.
“Barn finds” are bikes—or jeeps, or anything else—that have been sitting unattended to (in someone’s proverbial barn) for decades, but that are still restorable. To “bubba” something means to slap olive drab paint on a bike or jeep or Duck without actually restoring that thing using original parts. To restore something to the degree of “a gnat’s ass” is to do it right—really right, and “minty” is short for mint condition. A number of times, O’Brien and Pearson refer to projects that are “stalling:” a phase of the restoration process when, for whatever reason, the project has fallen into a rut.
Either you can’t track a part down, or you can’t figure out how to fix something, or you’ve just lost momentum. The men talk about stalling gravely, as if it were a secret but neglected tenth circle of hell.
A lot of the information that O’Brien and Pearson acquire about their bikes comes from online forums. O’Brien once shipped a jeep overseas, to a man in Europe who, through a friend in the Boston area, paid for the vehicle in cash. “When you’ve been in the hobby long enough,” O’Brien tells me, “you make so many friends.” Recently, O’Brien received a call from a guy looking for some information about a V12 Rolls-Royce engine of the kinds that were used in fighter and bomber jets during World War II. “At some point, there’s not gonna be any left anymore. Even if it’s just a pile of burned-out aluminum,” O’Brien says, “someone will try to rebuild it.”
By 3 p.m., it’s too cold in the garage to stay inside. So we go into O’Brien’s kitchen. The inside of his house is furnished bachelor-style, but very clean and well kept. On the wall is a picture of a mustang fighter jet. On the mantle over his fireplace sit two helicopter pilot helmets.
Near the stairs, though, he shows me some items that he considers part of the “Bob Museum:” some shiny combat boots and a pair of binoculars. He collects those, too, and has over 30 pairs. He takes them off the shelf, hands them to me. Through his kitchen window, over the roofs of oceanfront properties, I can see a small house on an island—a view that O’Brien has presumably been looking at for all of his life. “Seventy years later, you’re still looking through them,” he says of those binoculars. “Back then, we just built good stuff.”
Before leaving, Bob and Mike and I go back into the garage to drink beers. I feel like I’m beginning to understand these guys a little bit. Accessing the past doesn’t always need to be an explicitly personal journey. Why rely on memories when you can understand the lost world through things?
O’Brien and Pearson talk shop. The two men met in a M20 forum several years ago. Upon realizing that they were both in Maine, they decided to connect.
I ask the men what it would take to track down a piece of my family’s past. During the Vietnam War, my own father, while patrolling radio wire along the Thai border in a jeep, was overtaken by some Viet Cong in an altercation that, but for the grace of god, might have taken his life. I’ll never understand the legacy of that war on the lives of its veterans, but I sure as hell can imagine rebuilding my father’s jeep in my own garage.
“Now that was probably an M151, or maybe an M38,” O’Brien says, while Pearson suggests it was an A1 or CJ5. “Lot of ’em stayed behind,” O’Brien says. “What would they bring ’em back for? It was too damn expensive.” Pearson adds that he’s heard rumors that a lot of M20s, rather than making the sea voyage back to England, were pushed overboard. “Makes me want to cry,” he jokes—or sort of jokes.
When I ask the men what their advice would be for someone in my position—handy, capable enough, savvy with tools but who didn’t grow up rebuilding engines—O’Brien is wary.
“This stuff isn’t for the faint of heart,” he says. “You know how when you get your first house? You can paint it, you can work on it, that king of thing? Well this isn’t like that. With this stuff, you need to have some fundamental knowledge.”
After we shake hands, O’Brien tells me that he fully expects me to stop by next time I’m in town. As I drive back through the construction zones on Nubble Road, I imagine him and Pearson on a summer day, riding their M20s—minty, restored to a gnat’s ass—down these roads.
As an older gentleman, O’Brien’s got a certain style that young men of my generation just can’t seem to figure out. Part of it is the unselfconsciousness of his vintage look; part of it is the self-possession of that “fundamental knowledge” that we, swallowed by our app-happy obsessions, seem to have lost; but a lot of it, I think, has to do with O’Brien’s sense of unabashed, unapologetic confidence. When I asked O’Brien what he plans to do with his bike in the next months, he told me that, “As soon as the snow goes away, I’ll probably move it into the sunroom. I’m a single guy, so I can keep it in my bedroom if I want, but I probably won’t, because I like to live like a human being.”
And then, come summer, what will he do?
“Drive around, look cool,” he told me—as if, really, there was nothing else to it.