Saturday, December 4, 2010


George Disteel, towards the end of his life
 It was a rumor which floated around the San Francisco 'old bike' community for years - the crazy old guy whose son had been killed on a Vincent Black Shadow, went crazy, and spent the rest of his life hunting down Vincents, which he squirreled away in chicken shacks on his property.
Vincent Black Prince
The rumor was, as far as anyone can tell, based on the real life of George Disteel.  George was an avid motorcyclist, a fan of Vincent motorcycles, owning a Black Shadow named 'Sad Sack', and apparently a rider of some skill.  Born in 1904, he discovered Marin county in the 1940s after serving in the military - a motorcyclist paradise, full of empty, twising roads and year-round mild weather.  No one today knows what machines George owned before the Vincent, but he seems to have purchased his Shadow brand new, and created an impression in the local motorcycling community, not only for his riding ability and choice of the World's Fastest Production Motorcycle (as it said in the Vincent advertising), but of his increasingly erratic behavior, and appearance.
 ca.1947 Velocette KSS mk2 'bob-job'
A man of great personal discipline, George walked or bicycled many miles per day, and kept up a rigorous exercise routine.  He was also fond of wearing little clothing, quite possible in sunny Marin, and his ever growing beard usually served as his only upper-torso modesty.   Sometime in the late 1950s, his behavior became erratic, and he confided in an apprentice (Disteel was a master carpenter) the story of his 'son', who was tragically killed riding a Vincent at 20 years old.  George was never married, although he did have a few liasons earlier in his life, but no-one seems able to corroborate whether he had a son, or a paternal relationship with a young man.  In a sense, it doesn't matter, as this story became his justification for bizarre actions, such as stuffing every nook and cranny of his home and jobsites with paper and old cloth, and searching northern California for fast motorcycles, especially Vincents, to buy and hide away, preventing the death of another unsuspecting youth.
 Royal Enfield Interceptor700cc
 George eventually amassed something like 18 Vincents, two KSS Velocettes, a Norton International, two Moto Guzzi Falcones, an R51 BMW, Sunbeams, DKWs, Royal Enfields, plus a lot of rifles, clocks, oddments, antiques, etc, all of which he paid for by canny investments in real estate, making him quite rich.  He didn't appear rich at all though, with his near-nakedness, lack of bathing, and odd behavior.  Although he owned 23 properties in Marin county, he lived for a while in a '52 Hudson car filled with trash.  Eviction from the car meant moving to a Tenderloin residence hotel in San Francisco, after taking a sledgehammer to the car and having it towed.   Towards the end of his days, with cataracts making reading difficult and driving impossible, he wore a pirate's eyepatch made of gaffer's tape, switching from side to side in order to see better.

He collapsed on the street in SF in 1978, aged 74, and a keen-eyed coroner realized he was no indigent, which began a chain of discovery of the man's multiple homes, lands, sheds, hidden caches of motorcycles, storage units, etc.  As no heirs could be found, the motorcycles were sold at Butterfields auction house in San Francisco, where the Vincents fetched from $800 - $1500... Some of these motorcycles were brand new or nearly so, and many merely needed a good clean after their years packed in rags within sealed toolsheds.  A few of my friends own these bikes, so I'm fairly sure the story is least, the Vincent-in-a-chicken-coop part.
 Moto Guzzi Falcone