Home > Features > Rider Profile: Don Danmeier And His Brit Bikes

Rider Profile: Don Danmeier And His Brit Bikes

Andy SaundersJuly 07, 2016
Don and his faithful steed, a 1971 BSA 650cc Lightning. (Photos: the author)

Don and his faithful steed, a 1971 BSA 650cc Lightning. (Photos: the author)

Don Danmeier is a sociable fellow with a passion for travel on two wheels, an abiding affection for British bikes of the 20th century and a love for a good deal. It’s a dangerous combination, one that has landed many an enthusiast in divorce court or the poorhouse, or at least shuttling between storage lockers. Having painful experiences with two of those places, Don decided long ago to specialize. These days he only keeps “last edition” British motorcycles, bikes that were built at the end of the line and therefore most likely to be actually rideable as a practical proposition.

California's issuing black and yellow plates again, like the ones fitted to pre-1969 vehicles. Don doesn't need any, as you can see.

California’s issuing black and yellow plates again, like the ones fitted to pre-1969 vehicles. Don doesn’t need any, as you can see.

As an architect, specializing appropriately enough in failure analysis, Don feels everything must have a theme; focusing on last editions meant he would not be tempted by every deal that came along. If it wasn’t from the last year or so of the model’s life, he would happily refuse it. He’s seen too many garages filled with basket case “project bikes” that were too cheap to refuse and too worn out to repair. “The British have a great term: ‘Clapped out,’” he explains.

He owns 29 Brit bikes, built from 1914 to the last decade of the 20th century, brands from Ariel to Zenith. Yet you can’t really call Don a collector, because he’s not one of those guys who exists to buy bikes and then hide them behind locked doors, getting their jollies from gazing at the locked-up beauties. No, Mr. Danmeier loves to ride, and he loves to ride his old bikes all over the world, usually with his partner, Shirley Soucie, on the passenger seat.

Four of Don’s bikes—his 1955 Vincent Black Shadow, 1975 Norton Commando 850 Interstate, 1971 BSA Rocket 3 and 1971 BSA A65 Lightning carry home-built saddlebag racks to fit Don and Shirley’s Eclipse soft luggage. Incredibly, the pair can head out on a month-long trip with just two small saddlebags and a tank bag, holding tools, clothes and even two sets of raingear (they both rely on leather riding gear, so rainsuits are essential but pack small).

Don and Shirley will go to the next town, or thousands of miles to the East Coast, just for the fun of it, or to attend a rally (Don belongs to 20 clubs). With the choice of many other bikes, including the Vincent and an Ariel Square Four, Don’s go-to mount may surprise you. He and Shirley love to tour on a 1971 twin-cylinder 650cc BSA Lightning, with an original and unrestored “Dove Grey” painted frame. The BSA has made four trips from coast to coast, plus forays into Canada, and also visited Australia, New Zealand, much of Europe, Ireland, England and, of course, the Isle of Man (four times). Many people have never seen a BSA before; although the company boasted in the ’50s that it made one-in-four motorcycles in the world, it faced bankruptcy soon after Don’s Lightning was built.

Don and Shirley have been all over the world on this BSA.

Don and Shirley have been all over the world on this BSA.

The orphaned 1971 BSA A65 Lightning now has 70,000 miles under its wheels. Modifications include Boyer electronic ignition in place of the original Lucas points, and Hagon shocks to replace the well-worn Girlings. The wide, flat seat has a new cover and custom 3-layer foam by local whiz kid Don Clancy, and is the most comfortable of all, according to VIP passenger Shirley. Don reckons the last oil-in-frame BSA models were the best of all the twins, and handle better than contemporary Triumphs and earlier BSA twins and triples.

“Over the years we’ve spent many times what the bike is worth in shipping fees,” says Don, “but we’re happy knowing that we’ve got reliable, economical transport at our destination. The first time we visited New Zealand, we rented a late-model BMW, only to experience a number of electrical
failures. Plus the roads in the South
Island, and the frequently muddy roadworks, are much more suited to lightweight British bikes, so we’ve taken our own on every visit since.”

Don contemplates the collection—he'd rather be riding.

Don contemplates the collection—he’d rather be riding.

Even with 70,000 miles on the odometer, the 45-year-old BSA Lightning is still, amazingly, running the original steel and bronze plain main bearing on the engine’s crankshaft, a bearing that controls engine lubrication and one that has regularly failed for other BSA owners before the bike’s first service. The bearing was measured recently and has hardly worn. Don credits regular 1,500-mile oil changes using 20W/50 Castrol mineral oil and the use of a spin-on, full-flow Norton oil filter mounted beneath a side panel in addition to the stock, but inadequate, BSA screen. The bike’s longevity is even more impressive when you consider that Don’s a big guy, well over 6 feet tall (Shirley is petite, just the right size for a passenger,) and the vertical twin displaces just 650cc. “It gets hot and bothered in the mountains, but keeps on going.”

Riding a luggage-laden Brit bike with a California plate is an icebreaker around the world, especially because Don and Shirley avoid autostradas, autobahns and motorways (Interstates too), instead following scenic back roads where they can stop and talk motorcycles with people, and are frequently offered hospitality and accommodation.

Did we say Don likes old bike auctions?

Did we say Don likes old bike auctions?

Like we said, Don’s a sociable guy. Thirty years ago, he wondered why, if there was a California Ariel Club and a Norton Owner’s Club, there was no BSA club, when BSAs outnumbered all the other British bikes he’d seen on the curvy NorCal roads. “The Southern California BSA Club had 275 members. I thought maybe we could get up to 100.”

Don and the late Tom Fyfe established a BSA Owners Club of Northern California, and sent out a monthly newsletter (which has not missed an issue in 30 years). He and his buddies also started a unique meeting, The Clubman’s All British Motorcycle Weekend, every spring at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. It’s a Concours-style motorcycle show, social gathering and swap meet, followed by a ride the next day. The event is now in its 29th year and draws thousands of attendees eager to see pristine examples of British bikes, restored and original (a different British make is featured every year), and eager for a chance to win a restored British bike in the raffle—tickets are just $1. Now the BSA Owners Club of Northern California has 500 members.

At the age of 75 and still working, Don no doubt has many more years of motorcycling in front of him (although Shirley says, “I don’t know how many more long rides we can take”), and a desire to document his rides. He’s working on Travels With Shirley, a travelogue of all the miles the pair have done together since 1977. Don realizes, though, that compiling a book may be tough—the pair haven’t taken enough pictures along the way, and maybe never will. They’re too busy enjoying the ride.

Most BSAs sold in the U.S. were fitted with stylish small tanks—this BSA owner prefers the increased range of the Euro version.

Most BSAs sold in the U.S. were fitted with stylish small tanks—this BSA owner prefers the increased range of the Euro version.

Braking power on Don's Lightning is by twin leading shoe drum; longer-than-stock levers make it work on modern roads

Braking power on Don’s Lightning is by twin leading shoe drum; longer-than-stock levers make it work on modern roads.

Smiths speedo shows less than actual mileage; several times it quit working, no surprise.

Smiths speedo shows less than actual mileage; several times it quit working, no surprise.

After 45 years, the original Lucas switches work fine—but the mirror has been updated for modern traffic.

After 45 years, the original Lucas switches work fine—but the mirror has been updated for modern traffic.

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