Livingston, Texas—Mike Carson and son Buck are the owners of Carson Classic Motors, a private collection of more than 90 antique motorcycles from the early 1900’s through the 1970’s. Marques include BSA, Triumph, Harley-Davidson, Ariel, Norton, Indian, BMW, NSU and others. And unless a particular bike is in the middle of rebuild, it is in running order. I recently discovered this for myself during an interview with this unique father and son who demonstrate that a passion for motorcycles can forge the tightest of bonds.
Although Mike has been riding for more than 50 years, he and his son only began collecting bikes seriously about 15 years ago, when Buck was seven. But that zeal quickly blossomed and led to the founding of Carson Classics, which has been housed in its present location for six years. They do not perform any work or restoration on any other than their own machines, which they say “keeps them plenty busy.” This weakness for old bikes has caused them to cross paths with others of the same mindset, and their circle of vintage two-wheel friends continues to expand with every bike show and auction they attend. So it was only natural for the pair to give more than a casual glance at the possibility of competing in the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. In 2012, they threw caution to the wind and their names into the hat to see if they might be selected to compete. And things have never been the same.
The Motorcycle Cannonball is a cross-country endurance ride for vintage bikes. Organized by antique motorcycle restorer Lonnie Isam Jr., it was first held in 2010 and ran a southern route from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Santa Monica, California, lasting 17 days. The oldest bikes allowed to compete were pre-1916 classics only. Two years later the restrictions were eased a bit, allowing the influx of “newer” bikes. This time pre-1930 motorcycles were given the green flag and, while that may not seem like a big advantage to many, history shows that those few additional years saw some major design improvements to motorized two-wheelers around the world. And Buck wanted in. His entry would be a 1927 BSA S27 lovingly named “Elizabeth.” His dad Mike would drive the mobile machine shop that tagged along and would be allowed to make any needed repairs to Elizabeth after the completion of each day’s route. (While on the road, riders are on their own.) This time the chase for antique honors would run from New York to San Francisco, once again lasting 17 days.
Buck is a graduate of Sam Houston State University, has a love of boats, dogs, good cigars, cold beer and damn near anything with a motor and two wheels. A powerhouse of energy and determination, his work ethic is strong and I can’t imagine him ever meeting a stranger. In 2012 he was the youngest competitor to ever be accepted into the Motorcycle Cannonball. He actually turned 21 during this transcontinental adventure. Although they both originally hail from Colorado, both Mike and Buck quickly embraced the Texas culture, outfitting the truck towing the machine shop with a set of Longhorns on the hood, brandishing Texas flags about truck and trailer and, in true Lone Star camaraderie, reserving a keg of beer onboard to ease the aches and pains of their crew and the other competitors at the end of a long day’s ride. The Texas Team for 2012 also included Mike Wild and Ken Ashton from England, both riding the British-made Rudge, a 1924 and a 1925, and Chris Knoop from Australia with an Aussie-made 1925 Invincible JAP with sidecar.
Buck waged a valiant fight against the 68 other competitors in his inaugural Cannonball (even taking the lead in his class several times), but continued to be plagued by mechanical difficulties. Despite numerous late-night parking-lot repairs and roadside fixes, Elizabeth eventually succumbed to the rigors of the long road. But with that aforementioned tenacity, Buck refused to go down easily. The Golden Gate Bridge was the finish line and, before crossing, Buck dragged Elizabeth out of the back of the support truck and walked the ornery gal all the way across the bridge to the cheers of his fellow Cannonballers. And Mike was by his side all the way across, pushing the Beezer from behind and holding Buck’s cowboy hat. That attitude is part of the reason Buck won the coveted Spirit of the Cannonball Award. But this year’s run will be different, much different.
For 2014 Buck is aboard a “new” bike. “Evelyn” is a 1929 BSA Sloper, a 500 cubic inch single and, at the time of this interview, was a work in progress. It’s called a Sloper due to the unique angle placement of the cylinder. As Buck explained, “This was one of the first overhead valve models ever offered by BSA, and although the displacement is the same and features the same 5 hp as Elizabeth, the torque difference is massive. That’s due in part to having a twin-port exhaust system even though it’s a one-lunger so it breathes much better. A much refined motor—with great-looking twin-fishtail mufflers.” But of course the engine alone is not the only point of concern when dealing with machines this old, so Buck pointed out a few other upgrades between the ’27 and the 1929: “The frame tubes on the Sloper are 1″ diameter versus a 7/8″ size on Elizabeth. Plus it has a dual downtube in front of the motor, creating a more solid platform. This bike also features 7″ brakes whereas my first entry only sported 4″ diameter brakes, which should make a huge difference.” The wheels were recently sent out to be relaced with stainless spokes (all within regulations) while utilitarian-designed leather bags are currently being stitched together by Prestige Leatherworks.
When I asked why the Carson Classic Team decided not to run their first entry Elizabeth again, I was met with a surprising response. “Due to the fact that Buck was the youngest rider to ever compete in the Cannonball along with the recorded history of that effort, the value of the bike has almost doubled. It still sits as it did the day of the endurance run completion, never washed, nothing replaced or changed. It’s called provenance and adds a tremendous value to the bike,” explained Mike.
But don’t ever think Buck is some rich kid sitting around, fiddling with Daddy’s money; the boy is busy—very busy. Since that first run in 2012, he has been selected as the Youth Program Director for the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, a new position designed to draw young riders into the mix by introducing them to vintage machinery. And the effort does not only focus on restorations, but also includes choppers, bobbers, café racers and your local road burner (as long as it’s at least 35 years old). The AMCA could not have a finer role model in this position.
Mike and Buck have just released a 2015 calendar displaying some of their favorite bikes in the Carson collection along with some mighty purty girls.
Buck was recently seen retrofitting a rare factory-optional four-speed BSA transmission with some gearing change ratios to provide Evelyn with a little extra oomph for the long haul in the fall of 2014 and ensuring a comfortable 55 mph cruising speed.
Somehow he scored an ancient 3-speed transmission buried in the Australian desert that he has rebuilt and will serve as a spare—just in case.
Plus the Carson Classic Team has seen a growth spurt. Once other interested parties heard that the Carsons were back onboard for another challenge, requests to become a Texas member came pouring in from literally around the world. Thirty-two riders from seven countries expressed a desire to play a role in the CCM Cannonball Team. In the end, six were selected, all aboard Harley-Davidsons. Steve Simpson, plate #6, will be riding his 1928 H-D JD named “Dark Horse,” while Scott Byrd (#25) will be straddling “Kimberly,” a 1931 VL. Jon Neuman will be on his 1928 JD (#67) while rider #73, Greg McFarland, has accepted the challenge on his olive drab ’26 J-Model Harley. And Brent Mayfield (#77) will be attempting this cross-country trip on his 1935 VJ custom while David Lloyd (#54) will be astride “Lisa,” the oldest bike on the team, a 1919 Harley-Davidson J.
But the team has a secret weapon. The last rider in the group is… Buck’s dad, Mike. That’s right. No longer content to wrangle the support trailer, 64-year-old Mike Carson (#90) has decided to take the plunge and ride his 1924 Harley JE on a grand adventure, right alongside his son. Dubbed the “Black Angel,” the bike fired up on the second kick during this interview and, with Daddy Mike gunning this 90-year-old beauty, he seemed just as amped as son Buck. (Must have something to do with the gene pool.)
So the Carson Texas Team has doubled with eight contestants, seven aboard Milwaukee iron with one lone British entry, Buck (once again sporting plate #3). But as the group of riders increased, so has the 2014 support staff that now also numbers eight dedicated souls in three trucks hauling three trailers. Mike told me that CCM’s first attempt in the Cannonball cost just under $33,000 to complete (from the Carson wallet). With twice the riders and eight times the support crew, it is obvious these guys are serious. Or crazy. Or maybe just a little crazy serious—about their passion for a vintage challenge and their allegiance to one another.
The 2014 rendition of the Motorcycle Cannonball Run will be held this fall, September 5 through September 21. The restrictions have eased once again and allow bikes as “new” as 1936, first year of the Knucklehead, which will most likely make things even more interesting. Starting in Daytona Beach, it will conclude in Tacoma, Washington, after covering approximately 4,200 miles. You can follow all the teams’ progress online by going to www.motorcylecannonball.com. My money is on the Texans. And even if they don’t finish first, at least they have the beer to help the winner celebrate.
(This article A New Family Tradition was published in the June 2014 issue of Thunder Press, North edition, and in the April 2014 issue of Thunder Press, South edition.)