American Pickers’ top bikes: Harley, Royal Pioneer, and Von Dutch
Every collector has a personal Holy Grail. Few collectors seriously pursue theirs; fewer still actually find what they’re looking for and have the financial means to purchase it. In a recent best-of episode of American Pickers, however, Mike Wolfe defied the odds by scoring two.
It’s no secret that we enjoy watching the exploits of Wolfe and his friend and co-star Frank Fritz, especially when they uncover auto-related treasure (like in the “Top Cars” highlight episode televised earlier this year). In the same vein—and with a nod to all the two-wheeled enthusiasts out there—let’s look at “Mike’s Bikes,” featuring Wolfe’s top motorcycle and bicycle picks (including those two unicorns).
1910 Royal Pioneer
Wolfe and Fritz travel to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where they meet a longtime motorcycle enthusiast who owns a 1911 Flying Merkel and 1910 Harley-Davidson, both original right down to the paint. The fact that the bikes are in the guy’s house is a pretty good sign that he is emotionally attached to both, and he confirms as much by placing stratospheric “not-for-sale” prices on both.
But when he leads Mike and Frank into a back room and shows them a 1910 Royal Pioneer, mostly in pieces, Wolfe cannot hide his enthusiasm. The sophisticated bike was the technological leader of its era, powered by a 500cc single-cylinder engine, complete with hemispherical combustion chamber and horizontal valves.
Wolfe says, “Their claim to fame was, ‘We’re going to build a motorcycle for the elite, for somebody that doesn’t care about the price. We just want to build the coolest, the sleekest, the lightest-weight motorcycle that we can.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”
The owner explains that this particular motorcycle is one of four built for 1910, spared from a fire at the factory in late 1909 only because it was headed to the New York Motorcycle Show. Mike offers $35,000; the owner wants $60K. After both sides make counter offers, the deal stalls at $55,000, and the Pickers depart. Then Mike makes a call to “Jersey Jon” Szalay, an early-1900s motorcycle expert who calls the bike “the Holy Grail” (there’s that term) and scolds the two for walking away from such a rare find.
“Go down there and get that bike before the guy changes his mind,” Szalay tells them. “… or I’ll go down there and buy it myself.”
Wolfe heeds Jersey’s advice and buys the bike. “Royal Pioneer (and) Mike Wolfe,” he says, practically shouting. “Those two names go together now!”
1937 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead
Following a tip, Mike and Frank visit a collector in Kansas who is using a 1920s theatre to house an impressive array of cars, bikes, and memorabilia. Focus turns to a 1937 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, which Wolfe says “is the kind of bike that guys stay up at night dreaming about.”
After consulting a friend, who confirms Mike’s suspicions that some pieces aren’t original to the bike—it has a 1938 fork and 1939 frame—Wolfe pays $20,000 for it. Like the Pioneer, he says the bike is going into his personal collection.
1880s Overman Victor and American Star bicycles
Mike’s love for two-wheeled transportation began during childhood, his appreciation for history followed shortly thereafter, and he has pursued antique bikes ever since. “My passion runs deep for bicycles. It was like my first form of independence … I think they’re artistic pieces of Americana.”
Wolfe feeds that passion while in Wisconsin when he buys a pair of 1880s bicycles—one representing what was, the other representing what would be. In a package deal, he scores an American Star high-wheeler—which he says is “better than sliced bread”— and a ground-breaking “safety bike,” an Overman Victor. “Victor established the diamond frame that all bicycles use today,” Mike explains. “It’s the Cadillac of turn-of-the-century bikes.”
He nets the pair for $3,800.
1920s Harley-Davidson frame and 1900s Orient bicycle
Mike drools over an 1880s Columbia high-wheeler in New Hampshire and even takes it for a spin, but the owner deems it not for sale. All is not lost, however. He buys the “carcass” of a Harley-Davidson JD and also purchases an early-1900s Orient bicycle.
1942 Harley-Davidson/Von Dutch XAVW
How big is Von Dutch? “If pinstripers had a Mount Rushmore, Von Dutch’s face would be on it,” Mike says. So scoring the Von Dutch XAVW is about as good it gets.
In a chapter titled “Holy Grail,” Mike and Frank receive a tip from a friend that leads them to a North Carolina couple rumored to own a 1942 Harley-Davidson Von Dutch conversion. After some initial trepidation, the couple pulls opens a barn door and reveals the bike. Wolfe nearly faints.
Von Dutch’s 1966 creation features a Harley XA frame, Volkswagen engine, Honda 450 tank, and Moto Guzzi components. It carries Von Dutch pinstripes, of course, along with his name engraved on the side of the motor. The trail of ownership includes hot-rodder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, another pinstriping legend and creator of the popular Rat Fink character.
“It’s everything I love about old Harleys and Volkswagens rolled into one,” Mike says of the bike, which he buys for $21,000. “Right now I’m having an emotional love affair, and I’m not selling it.” Five years later, Wolfe still owns it. It’s his Holy Grail, after all. OK, his second Holy Grail.