A Modern Ride, With Classic Pride
In “a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island,” stands a storefront called 20th Century Cycles, owned by Billy Joel. This international music icon has sold over 150 million records worldwide and won six Grammy Awards (as well as many other awards and honors, too numerous to mention). Since the 1970s, he has been accumulating and customizing motorcycles. Joel’s showroom, open to the public, embodies an aesthetic showcasing his passion and love for well-designed bikes. I took some time with The Entertainer the day after he inducted country artist Garth Brooks into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
It started when I was a kid. There’s a Stevan Dohanos painting—it’s famous—I don’t remember the name of it [“Tex’s Motorcycle” appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1951],but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s a bunch of kids out on the street standing around a full-dress Harley-Davidson; maybe a panhead, maybe even a knucklehead—this was in the late ’40s or early ’50s—I don’t think you can see the motor, but you see the fringe is hanging from the saddle and there’s a big chrome rail, and a big buddy seat. And these kids are looking at it like, “Wow!” Like he’s the cowboy with the white hat. You don’t even see the guy who’s riding the bike, just the kids standing around it.
Now I remember when I was a kid doing the same thing. When I first saw a big American motorcycle, it stayed with me, just like that Stevan Dohanos painting. Levittown, where I grew up, was a real blue-collar area. It was the first housing development in America built for returning veterans, so it was a boon for our parents—but nobody had any money. So what kids used to do was make motorbikes. They’d take a Briggs & Stratton motor off a lawnmower and put it on a Schwinn and “rig it up.” I never made one. I didn’t even have tools, but some other kids did. It was completely illegal. Kids were smashing themselves up all over the place! But when you’re a kid, you’re bullet proof—made out of rubber. That started me thinking about riding.
What I really enjoy about it—this goes back to when I was a little boy—is when we used to put playing cards in our bicycle spokes and we’d make believe we were on a motorcycle [makes the engine brrr sound]. The great fun of motorcycling is you don’t have to pedal the damn thing! You can go on two wheels and you lean and do all that stuff. You’re outside on this frame and you’re self-propelled.
WHEN DID MOTORCYCLING START FOR YOU?
There was a guy who lived down the road who had a BSA. It was an A50, which is the Royal Star—500cc air-cooled twin. He taught me how to ride. I learned on the British setup, with the brake on the left and the shifter on the right-hand side. Everything’s the opposite, and that’s how I learned. They were fun, fast bikes, those British bikes back in the ’60s. That was state-of-the-art.
He went off to Vietnam and let me use the bike. He wanted me to take care of it for him. It was in his garage. My Mom never really knew about it. She would have flipped out if she knew I was riding a motorcycle! But I went to his house and cleaned the bike, oiled it, and checked the tire pressure and chain tension … a little wrenching here and there … a carburetor adjustment now and then. There was an instruction manual that came with it and I actually read it. I learned a little about mechanics, but not a lot though. Then he came back from ’Nam and took the bike again.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST MOTORCYCLE?
The first bike I actually owned was an old Triumph Tiger, an early ’60s model. I was 16 or 17. I didn’t have a license or insurance. I was completely illegal. Oh yeah, it was used. It was a wreck, but it was mine. It was a total loss—the oil system leaked; the Lucas electric lights never worked. It vibrated you to pieces! I probably got my hip dysplasia from it [laughs]. It was fun. They were fast bikes for the time.
I only had it for a few months. Then, I was in a band and I started to go on tour. That was it for motorcycles for me. I sold that bike to someone and went off on tour to look for America. I left bikes behind for a long time because I was busy working and traveling. I just didn’t have time to buy and own anything, or store anything anywhere. I was traveling so much. Then I rediscovered bikes in the late ’70s. All of a sudden I had a little money.
WHAT BIKE DID YOU BUY THEN?
I got myself a little Yamaha 400 Special. It looked like a nice, simple, straight-ahead parallel twin—like a smaller British bike, but it had the American setup. So I relearned the American universal setup. And I’ve never been able to go back to the British setup again. You can’t! When you go to an intersection, you just stop!
SO YOU STARTED COLLECTING AT THAT POINT?
I wouldn’t say I was collecting. I started with the Yamaha 400. That was in about 1977 or ’78. Then I went to a Virago 750. That was about ’79 or ’80. Then I got a Sportster. That’s when it was a 1000cc, and was still made by AMF, before the Harley guys bought it back. It was a fun, but very crude bike. From there I graduated pretty quickly. I went to a 1340cc FLHS, basically a stripped down Electra Glide, and started dressing that out. I wanted it to look like a late-‘40s era Harley, like in the Stevan Dohanos painting. There I was trying to reproduce that bike that I saw when I was a little kid. I didn’t know what I was doing: That’s not the right bag. That’s not the right windshield … I really got into the detail of things. That’s when I started customizing the bikes, and it grew into this.
In the early ’80s, I had about 20 motorcycles: Ducatis, Moto Guzzis, Harleys, some Japanese bikes, and a couple of Triumphs. I had a Mike Hailwood Replica, a 750 SuperSport, a couple of BMWs—they were all airheads: R65, R80, R100RT, R100RS. Then, little by little, I decided which ones I wasn’t using enough and started selling them off, and I regretted it as the years went on: Why did I get rid of that Ducati 750 SuperSport? Why did I get rid of that BMW R100RS? You can’t find them now, or their price has gone up.
WAS RIDING JUST FOR PLEASURE, NOT A MODE OF TRANSPORTATION FOR YOU?
Well, I never had a regular job, so I never had to get anywhere. For me it was a way of getting around. I had to watch myself because, as I said, I didn’t have insurance or a license. I was illegal. So I would go out at night, or take short hops. I never really went on a long trip until I was legal, which was in the ’70s.
A LOT OF RIDERS START THAT WAY.
It makes you better because you can’t do anything wrong. You’d get pulled over. So you’d better be pretty good. It’s sort of like boating. You start with a small boat. If you start with a big boat, you’re going to mess up bad. With a little boat, if you mess up, it’s a little mess-up.
WHAT IMPACT DID MOTORCYCLING HAVE ON YOU?
It wasn’t rebellious. After Easy Rider, Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen, they wrote the book, you know? I was a kid. I wasn’t riding a motorcycle to be bad, or look at how cool I am. Although it’s fun having a girl put her arms around you when you’re going on a motorcycle. It’s nice. So girlfriends came and went depending on how ride-friendly they were [laughs]. My girlfriend now loves to ride. That’s a big plus. It’s the feeling of hurtling through space with nothing, no cage around you. You see so much more. Your perception is incredible when you’re on a motorcycle. You smell things. You feel temperature changes. You notice a lot more detail. Shade and light make a big difference. You’re very focused when you’re on a motorcycle—if you’re serious, or if you’ve had an accident.
WHEN YOU GO ON TOUR, DO YOU RIDE?
We take about a half-dozen different types of motorcycles. There is a truck that just trucks the bikes from gig to gig. We did the West Coast like that. For one ride we did a run down to Big Sur from San Francisco, the Monterey Peninsula, Los Angeles. California is great for riding! Back in the early ’70s, I lived there for three years and I didn’t ride. I didn’t have a bike. With just a car, I’d drive up to the Malibu mountains. It’s pretty. I didn’t realize until the last few times I went how good it is for motorcycling, carving up those canyons. It’s a beautiful road system there.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PLACES TO RIDE?
I do prefer the East End of Long Island, where the Hamptons are, and the North Fork, because you’ve got nice country roads. You’ve got straightaways, twisties, and areas that have no traffic at all. The Hamptons get crowded on the weekends. Still, there are a lot of back roads that people don’t even know about. So the East End is our get-away country spot.
Also, I take bikes with me. I have a boat—it’s a cargo ship, and I can fit six motorcycles in the hold. So we’ll take the ship up to New England: Cape Ann, the Maine coast. We’ll off-load the bikes and just go! That’s fun.
My favorite area to ride is actually up the coast, from the East End of Long Island up and the New England coast up from Newport, Rhode Island. Then, you just follow Route 1 all the way up. Stay off 95!
DO SONGS COME TO YOU WHEN YOU’RE RIDING?
Not lyrics, music does. When I’m on a motorcycle I’m hearing the pattering of the engine. It’s like when you’re on a Harley and you hear potato, potato, potato, banana, banana, banana. On Italian motorcycles I start hearing Rossini, classical music. I usually give myself a classical theme on a bike. There’s a lot of Beethoven on the internal jukebox when I’m riding. I have an inner radio going on.
HAS RIDING EVER INSPIRED A SONG?
For music. I’m writing thematic music. I’ve been writing instrumental music for the last 15 years. Not songs, just music. I’m sure a lot of it came from driving around on the bike and coming home, having a certain feeling. It gives you a mood. It picks you up.
I tried to write songs about motorcycling. It’s a hard word to rhyme: Cycle, fykle, Michael, that’s about it. Arlo Guthrie did it with pickle and motorcycle. It’s a hard thing to do. And after “Born to Be Wild,” the definitive motorcycle song, it’s hard to write about. I can’t get it in music. I wrote a song once called “The Motorcycle Song,” and it ended up having nothing to do with motorcycling. [Sings:] “Now, I’m ridin’ down that road and I’m on my motorcycle.” And then it became a slower song called “All About Soul.” First it was called “The Jericho Road.” Nah, it just wasn’t going to work!
HOW HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT MOTORCYCLE SAFETY?
I was “given” an accident back in ’82. A woman ran a red light and I ran my Harley XLCR café bike into her car. There she was right in front of me! I had the right of way, but she decided to run the red light. So my bike hit her and I flipped over. It crushed my left thumb. [Points to thumb] There’s no bone in this thumb. The other hand got pulled out of the wrist socket because the front wheel was turned so suddenly and violently on impact.
I think of motorcycle riding as a chess game. I’m totally focused. There’s a Zen to it, which I actually enjoy. Everything else goes away except concentrating on the ride-at-hand: thinking ahead and defensive driving. What’s the next bad thing that can possibly happen? There’s a street coming out from the right … If there’s a car that I can see coming up, he’s probably going to pull out in front of me … That kind of thing. You honk your horn, or flash your lights. You stay to the middle of the road if you can so you’re more visible. It’s always a little war, actually. I always have a hand on the brake and a finger on the horn when I’m riding. And I’m ready to stop. I’ve had my accident. You never know when you’re going to be given another one. Usually it’s the car’s fault. It’s just a matter of when.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HELMET USE?
If I’m going on a highway, a big road, or any distance I’ll usually take the big helmet. Do you know about the new helmets? They’re kind of like helicopter-pilot style. It’s a three-quarter full, and it’s got this big visor that comes down, and pretty much hides you.
That’s the same thing I like about boats. If I cut myself loose on a boat and get off shore, I’m just another boater out on the water. Nobody sees you; you’re anonymous. You can get in just as much trouble as anybody else. On a motorcycle, when you put that helmet on, with the windshield, and you’re on a highway, you’re just another rider on a motorcycle. In a way, it’s a great equalizer.
I had a full-face helmet on when I flipped over the car. Thank God I did. Even though today I’m wearing a “shorty,” I’m not wearing one of those fiberglass yarmulkes. I don’t get those at all. If you’re trying to say: Look how bad I am, you’re really saying: Look how stupid I am! Skid lids, they call them.
I have a house in Florida, too. There’s no helmet law there, but I wear a helmet. I drive around and see these guys on the highway with no helmets. I think, Come on, please! It means you don’t care about your brain.
HOW DOES MOTORCYCLING AFFECT YOUR DRIVING?
It makes you a better driver. You’re so much more aware of all the things that can happen on the road: people are going to turn, and they don’t signal. You have to start defensive driving, second guessing, knowing how to brake, using your turn signals all the time, hand signals, trying even with your body language to signal what you’re going to do. If a car gets too close behind you, you try and back him up. If you see traffic slowing down in front of you, you start braking way before you get close. Trying to look around a corner in a turn: What’s up there? Is there sand on the road? Is there gravel on the road? Is there wet on the road? You’ve got to be aware of everything.
In Nassau, it’s much more congested here, and people are in more of a hurry. Suffolk is a little more laid back, more like “the sticks”—Eastern Suffolk anyway. The only thing you have to worry about out on the East End is deer. You’re on one of those twisty back roads, and all of a sudden—there’s not much you can do. It’s a real hazard. There are deer everywhere. I like animals, but I’ll try to brake if I see a squirrel! I don’t want to hit anything. I’m a wimp.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO YOUNGER RIDERS?
I even tell young people, “Maybe you shouldn’t ride.” They say, “They scare me.” I say, “That’s good, you should be scared.” If you’re not scared, you’re stupid. But sometimes being scared is fun, like going to a horror movie.
WHAT RIDING/SAFETY TECHNIQUES HAVE YOU PICKED UP THROUGH THE YEARS?
Counter steering is a really good thing to know about. It makes so much sense. I don’t know if people really study that. Where you’re going to make a right turn, you push the handlebars as if you’re going to make a left turn, and the bike leans perfectly. If you’re going to go right, make believe you’re steering left. That’s counter steering and it always works. That’s a good thing to know.
Braking going into a curve, accelerating coming out of it, and leave plenty of space between you and the car in front of you.
DO YOU RIDE IN ALL CONDITIONS?
I used to, but not if I can help it now. It’s sort of like boating: you don’t go out on a lousy day. [In a British accent:] Gentlemen don’t sail to weather. I used to ride in the wintertime, even when there was snow and ice. That’s crazy. You think you’re immortal when you’re younger. Now, if it’s less than 50 degrees, I probably don’t ride. I don’t like riding in the rain. I’m picky now. I don’t really ride that much at night anymore either. I feel a lot less safe at night.
WHAT IS THE AESTHETIC YOU’RE GOING FOR HERE AT 20TH CENTURY CYCLES?
This whole thing started back around the late ’90s. I started gathering more bikes together. I don’t like to call it a collection because I actually ride most of them. There are maybe two or three bikes that I haven’t ridden here.
Also, I have all these motorcycles and I have no place to store them at my house. I have a couple of houses, but ran out of garage space, so I needed to rent a storage facility. This was an old Ford dealership, here, back in the 1920s, and the space looked good. I said, You know what? I’ve been a really fortunate guy. Why don’t I share my good fortune with people who like bikes? Let them come in and take a look around.
I wanted to share an aesthetic with people. This is my aesthetic. There’s something about each one of the motorcycles in here that I like aesthetically. You won’t find any choppers in here. The newest super-fast Japanese bike in here is an ’82 Suzuki Katana, which was the first one Hans Muth designed, after he worked with BMW. That euro, sleek, modern, bubble forward—I’m not a fan of that stuff. I like the older designs. In fact, that R65 I came on, which is a 1979, is a modern bike. That’s how contemporary I am.
For some reason or another, I’m a real aficionado of that ’30s, ’40s, ’50s to mid-‘60s era of automotive design: Harley Earl—those guys. That’s the whole premise of this place, 20th Century Cycles. Even the new bikes, we make them look like old bikes. There are no new Beemers here; they’re all older—all vintage motorcycles here.
I tend to like the retro kind of bikes: ’60s-style café racers with the British setup, ’70s-era Japanese bikes. I like bobbers, which were the original choppers, but I hate choppers. They’re stupid bikes. They’re ugly and hard to drive. If you look on eBay, see how many choppers are on there. It’s usually a middle-aged guy that says “I’m finally going to get my Easy-Rider bike,” and he drives it once and says “This sucks!” Then he puts it on the market and takes a beating!
My favorite bikes now are the smaller-displacement bikes. I did the big bike thing for a while. If I’m going to take my girlfriend on a long cruise, I’ll take a touring bike. I have a Honda Aero 1100 that I like. And I have a Moto Guzzi California Vintage that I like a lot.
HAS TECHNOLOGY TAKEN AWAY THE TOOLS OF THE COMMON MAN?
Yes, and the bikes don’t identify themselves as much as they used to. You could tell by the tank and the configuration of the engine if it was a transverse twin, or a parallel twin, or even air- or water-cooled. Now you can’t see. Take the fiberglass off! I can’t see anything. It makes me nervous. A lot of young guys don’t even know what older bikes look like. They think all bikes are completely covered in fiberglass. I can tell a bike by looking at the motor. I can’t tell what’s what anymore; I don’t know! Now, it’s all computerized.
DO YOU LIKE MIXING OLD AND NEW? WHY?
Yes, I like the convenience of new technology. See, I like the way old things look, but I like the way new things work. So I’m trying to combine that. It’s “A Modern Ride, With Classic Pride,” that’s our 20th Century Cycles motto.
The new bikes now are so fast. They’re made ergonomically to perform better at higher speeds. Going slow on a newer bike is sometimes problematic. They don’t hold up as well and may be top-heavy. They’re high-performance bikes. They want to go! The older bikes, if you went like 100 miles per hour, it felt like you were going 500 miles per hour. It’s not necessarily going fast; its feeling like you’re going fast.
We just built a bobber for Bruce Springsteen: a Kawasaki W650 that looks like an old Triumph. We may be building one for Peter Fonda, who’s doing another bike movie. There’s an independent filmmaker here on Long Island who wants to do a motorcycle buddy movie, and he’s probably going to use one of our bikes. We may use some of them for advertising. People like Ralph Lauren like to use old props and vintage stuff for window-shopping displays.
WHO ELSE DOES A GOOD JOB WITH CUSTOMIZING MOTORCYCLES?
There are a couple of Japanese guys; I think it’s Yoshi’s Garage. The Japanese really know how to do that. They make a religion out of the ’50s-era hot rod look. That’s what I like, bobbers. Basically they were Harleys, or Indians, or big American bikes that they started knocking parts off to make them go faster or do hill climbing. When the British bikes came in, they started doing it with them. These pre-dated choppers, but it’s a much better look. It’s actually a hot rod. Then, when they started stretching things out—the droopy melted tank look—all that California custom stuff, I didn’t like that. You’ll notice we have a bunch of bobbers here. I use Japanese motors.
We’re doing one with a BMW, as a matter of fact: it’s a 1976 R90. We’re making it a café racer. It’s going to be a nice café bike. I would like to get a new BMW and customize it, but it’s almost impossible to retro style. The frames are very radical. There’s so much fiberglass.
DO YOU HAVE TO RIDE TO HAVE AN APPRECIATION FOR THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE DESIGN?
It’s almost a form of sculpture. People recognize the era just by looking at the machine. People are really hungry for character. I have a Royal Enfield—actually it’s not even that old—but it looks like a military bike from World War II. It’s a little 500cc air-cooled single-cylinder bike. It looks like an army bike from the Rommel Afrika Korps campaign. I’ll pull up next to a line of shiny chromed-to-the-max Harley-Davidsons, and everyone comes over to this little Royal Enfield. “Wow, what’s that? Is that a World War II bike?” No, but it looks like one! It’s got character.
Girls like that. A guy who goes out and buys a Lamborghini to try to impress women, man forget it! Get yourself a clunky old Volkswagen Beetle and you’ll meet a girl a lot quicker than you will in that Lamborghini: “That’s so cute.” It’s like having a cute dog on a leash. Don’t buy an expensive greyhound; get a little pug: “That’s so cute.” It’s character I’m looking for.
HOW DO YOU END UP WITH A LOT OF THESE BIKES?
I look for them. We look on Craigslist, eBay, or we look at Walneck’s. Usually the ones I want are all older bikes, so they’re always easy to find.
IT’S ANOTHER CREATIVE OUTLET FOR YOU THAT DOESN’T HAVE TO DO WITH MUSIC. HOW DO YOU “DIG IN”?
I enjoy the designing and building process as much as the riding. I get excited thinking about what I’m going to do, like: I’ve got a Moto Guzzi and how am I going to make it look like a bobber? It’d make a great café bike, but I haven’t seen a good bobber. And BMW, same thing: How do I make it more of a street rod—more tough American hot rod with a BMW? You can do it. You’ve got to get the wheels spinning. That’s what turns me on—that aesthetic. I like that.
I like being able to share my aesthetic with other people. Let younger kids come in and say, “That’s what older bikes look like?” They like them. Everybody likes the way old things look. It’s why people go to Europe and see old architecture, or go to Newport, Rhode Island: they like that.
People like me prefer questions about the technical aspects of what we do. If you’re talking about motorcycles, you’re talking about technical aspects of motorcycles. When you talk about the work, in particular, people like to talk about that—what you really do, what the job is. I like talking about bikes because it’s just another guy talking about motorcycles.
Billy Joel realizes how fortunate he’s been. Sharing his love for motorcycles is one way of giving back to the community and thanking them for his incredible success. His shop is open to the public, admission is free—and nothing is sold there. It exists for people “to have a look around,” and for real motorcycle enthusiasts to enjoy a very eclectic display of unique, original, and custom machines. If he happens to be on hand when you visit and you want to strike up a conversation, don’t talk about music or his personal life. Talk motorcycles: you may not get him to stop.