Balancing theory with practice by rebuilding vintage British motorcycles

When he was 10 years old, Oscar H. Thackery began rebuilding vintage British motorcycles and has restored more than 200 of them during his lifetime.

His first one was salvaged from his grandfather’s scrap metal yard, where people frequently dropped off their old motorcycles in the northwestern English town of Blackburn.

“One day, my dad said, ‘We will take one of these motorcycles home and rebuild it,” said Oscar, the Global Refractory SME for the Reliability group who spends most of his time at Orion plants worldwide finding ways to improve operations.

The first father-and-son project was an ugly, rusty red BSA Bantam, commonly used by the British postal service. BSA stands for Birmingham Small Arms. Along with motorcycles, the company also made guns. Its corporate logo features three rifles.

“I remember riding the motorcycle in the farm fields around our village,” Oscar said. “That’s when my passion for these bikes really took off. By the time I was 16, I owned about 16 motorcycles.”

He said his lifelong hobby complements his job at Orion because it keeps his mind grounded in the hands-on, practical side of his work. It enables him to easily shift from theory to on-site problem solving.

“When people in our plants know that I can turn a wrench and weld a bracket, they really appreciate that,” he said. “Having the practical knowledge about how to get these things correct — like replacing bearings — it’s what our maintenance crews experience every day.”

Half of his tidy garage in the Houston suburb of Porter is taken up with four vintage British motorcycles and tall black tool cases. Shelving along the back wall is packed with neatly organized plastic bins of cables, carburetors, gear boxes and other spare parts that he has collected over the years.

Parked in the front of the garage is a black Norton 850 cc Commando, one of the last to be produced when it was made in 1975. Oscar bought the machine in 2010 from a widow who had stored it in a barn in Waco, Texas, after her husband died. He spent 18 months rebuilding it.

“People often ask me, ‘Oscar, do your motorcycles run?’” he said. “And I tell them, ‘Of course they run. I wouldn’t have them here and not running.”

Just before Oscar turned the ignition key on the Norton, he warned, “When they start, they sound like a bag of nails.” The machine quickly rumbled itself awake. The exhaust pipe started vibrating and making loud barking and growling noises. It was ready for the road.

“See, once it gets warm, it behaves,” he said.

The vintage motorcycles are often sold for between $20,000 and $25,000 at auction — a large sum of money for the machines.

During the weekends, Oscar enjoys going for long rides through the forests in northern Texas. He has never had a motorcycle break down on the road. Filling up the gas tank often takes a long time.

“Every time I stop at a gas station, someone will ask me, ‘Is that a Norton or a BSA?’ Oscar said. “They will want to take a picture because their dad had one. Sometimes you can get caught at the gas station for 30 minutes because someone wants to talk and take photos.”

The speedometers and tachometers on the bikes are all mechanical, like a Swiss watch. Repairing them can be expensive. Oscar gets his instruments serviced by a watchmaker in Ohio who spent three months with an expert in England learning how to rebuild them.

All of Oscar’s motorcycles have a story.

He has a 1970 Triumph Tiger, whose original owner was a veteran who bought the bike when he returned from the Vietnam War. He rode it all over the country before storing it in a lean-to. It was in bad shape when Oscar began rebuilding it. The gas tank — painted with an avocado color called “Spring Gold” — has a distinctive patina.

“What amazes me is that it has 63,000 miles on it, which for a motorcycle is quite a lot,” he said.

In front of the Triumph is a 1961 BSA Spitfire that Oscar bought from a farmer in Oregon. Before the purchase, the last time the motorbike ran was in 1982. After changing the fluids and adjusting the magneto, the Beeza started on the first kick.

The Spitfire was an export machine for the US market that was demanded by the U.S. dealers for desert racing in the 1960’s. It is made for the track, and Oscar has raced it against Triumphs and Nortons in Texas.

“I got second place in the final race, but I did win my heat,” he said.