27 July 2015

The Mail-Order Motorcycle

How awesome would it be today to walk into a big-box store and ride out on an Italian sport bike? Fifty years ago, at your neighborhood Wards and Sears, you could do just that.

Decades before Ford mass-produced the Model T, and a century before Amazon.com made every book, bouquet and baby blanket just a mouse click away, Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Warren Sears revolutionized retail with massive printed catalogs. Offering everything from shotguns to guitars, cameras to baseball mitts, they put all the finer things in life within reach of everyone, no matter where you lived. Even if you called Teakettle Junction home, ordering up a player piano was just a mail-in form and fountain pen away. Genius.

While Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co. were highly selective in the products they offered — Wards launched the term “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” — they were by no means exclusionary. In fact, as the rajahs of retail, they'd sell you just about anything. The firms were deep pocketed, and so they didn’t mind exploring promising new opportunities, even if they didn’t always work out. Notable wins included Sears’ Allstate insurance and Kenmore appliances, but flops included the 1952–53 Allstate car, based on the Kaiser-Frazer Henry J.

And so, for a 20-year period from about 1950 to 1970, these catalog giants also offered my most favorite mechanical invention: motorcycles. Resellers rather than manufacturers, Sears connected with American company Cushman to create Allstate scooters and then Italian company Piaggio to rebadge Vespa scooters, along with Italy’s Gilera and Austrian company Puch for small-displacement motorcycles. For its part, Wards also tapped Puch, along with Motobecane from France and Italy’s Benelli, Lambretta and Bianchi to rebadge existing European small-displacement scooters and motorcycles. There was even a brief dalliance with Mitsubishi of Japan.

By dating everyone in their proverbial little black books, Sears and Wards were ideally poised for the post-war U.S. bike boom, with literally dozens of models available. But without the ability to steer product development, in reality Wards and Sears had more sizzle than steak to sell. They did this, in part, with inventive names such as the Wards Riverside model range, which evoked an exciting kinship with the West Coast racetrack.

I haven’t (yet!) owned an official Wards or Sears model, but I have owned and ridden many of their brethren from the period, including Ducati, Garelli, Jawa, Lambretta, Motobi, MZ, NSU and Puch. By nature, all of these little Eurobikes are honest, simple and generally unpretentious, which, provided they are running right, deliver a fun cocktail of jaunty performance and exotic flair. They are not, however, anywhere near capable of rivaling the performance of big Triumphs, BSAs and Harleys of the period. In terms of price point, size, engineering and disposition, the Sears and Wards catalog bikes were better suited for roles in a Leave it to Beaver episode than in any part of Dirty Harry. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever — to every thing there is a season.

In our "modern world," selling motorcycles out of a catalog that also included blenders, Sunday dresses and lawn mowers would seem ludicrous. But before today’s market niches were established, and before brand image was so important, you could actually ride your Allstate Sport 60 to the river in fishing waders and a fedora without the least bit of shame. The focus was on practicality, utility and a dash of wholesome adventure.

When contemplating the purchase of an old bike, among the first considerations are two-stroke or four-stroke, scooter or motorcycle. Most, if not all, of the Riverside and Allstate scooters were two-strokes, and the motorcycles were a mix of two- and four-stroke models, depending on manufacturer. The engineering featured none of the leading advancements of the day such as overhead camshafts or electric starting, so for a few hundred dollars, buyers got basic two-strokes (usually single-cylinder), most of which required mixing your own gas/oil brew, or else pushrod overhead-valve engines (also single-cylinder). Credit where credit's due, the component quality and finish of the Austrian and Italian machines were plenty good for the time, as was the styling. And in-house financing meant you could buy a machine on time or for cash. “Price? Low, and nothing extra to buy,” read a 1967 Wards ad for the $569 Riverside 250. “Terms to two years.”

With recreational motorcycling still in its infancy in America, the sizzle in the ad copy was a powerful attraction that linked fairly ordinary products to the promise of extraordinary excitement. “The Spirited Cheyenne,” called out an ad for the $319 Sears Allstate scrambler, “Scoots through brush-covered, rock-strewn forests with unhesitating power.” Or, for a bigger streetbike, “The Brazen One. 78 inches of grace and guts. Styled for the man who demands handsome simplicity, steady performance off the beaten track.” Reading by flashlight under the covers on a dark Poughkeepsie night, how could you not want one? Maybe the best though, was the promo copy for Wards’ Mojave 360: “To make the Mojave 360 this quick, we made it lean. Race lean,” the copy started. “With a three-digit speedometer that isn’t there just for decoration.”

Like the floating feather in Forrest Gump, the fates of these catalog bikes — which actually could be ordered by mail or purchased in a network of retail stores — were sealed by emerging EPA and DOT standards, which weren’t kind to two-strokes, and also by Japanese companies, which were rapidly improving technology, adding features, and expanding their model ranges and dealer infrastructure. Previously, when there was little competition in the small-bike ranks, such Euro-bikes stood a fighting chance. But it wouldn’t last.

Among the numerous “catalog bike” models available, all are collectible today due to their unique Wards and Sears association. But collectible doesn’t necessarily mean valuable. Because really, these bikes were the lesser cousins — licensed versions of the real Benellis and real Puchs and real Gileras of the day. And even those models weren’t exactly on the Vincent or BMW desirability index. As well, no Wards Riverside or Allstate machine ever won a major race, or set a speed record, or introduced a new technology, or starred in a John Wayne or Steve McQueen movie.

That’s a good thing, because it means the very attraction that probably first pulled us into the hobby — the joy of mucking about with a cheap, soulful old machine — is still highly doable with this rare and sideways breed of catalog bikes. If you prowl Craigslist, Yakaz or eBay long enough, you’re going to find the perfect candidate for your own garage, workshop, office or pool room at a price ranging from peanuts for a crusty barn find to several thousand dollars for a pristine example.

Ultimately, the Wards and Sears catalog bikes are but a footnote in motorcycling history, and only as relevant in their field as polyester leisure suits and avocado appliances were to fashion. Simultaneously, though, they are a marvelous piece of mid-century kitsch. America spawned them, America embraced them, and now we need to go find and enjoy them forever and again.

5 Reader Comments

  • 1
    John Adams Seattle August 27, 2015 at 11:08
    I bought two 'Vespas' from Sears. One a 1966 125cc was purchased on sale for $188. I sold it 45 years later for 10 times that price after I reconditioned it to like new condition. With a "Sears" badge not Allstate, it is very rare.
  • 2
    Pete Noneman Orefield PA September 17, 2015 at 09:08
    I believe Sears also had a model made by Jawa/CZ from Czechoslovakia. Very cool to see the picture of the blue 106 as I am its owner.
  • 3
    jim locke georgetown tx February 17, 2016 at 14:17
    Enjoyed the Sears article, with one exception, what we commonly refer to as a scooter would be the step through model made by Cushman, you referred scooters as all 2 cycle, they were all 4 cycle, the bikes from overseas were 2 cycle, still brought back memories of going to Sears to see the bikes
  • 4
    Kevin Carey Rochester, NY October 12, 2016 at 11:12
    Long live the 50cc Benelli Fireball (Sold by Wards as the Riverside 450SS)!
  • 5
    George Victor,NY October 31, 2016 at 14:49
    I had a Sears 106SS in High School and really enjoyed it. It was a street bike I turned into a scrambler of sorts. Lots of fun in a relatively small package.

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