December 23, 2022

Old Bikes Find a Home in Bendigo and Castlemaine

The City of Greater Bendigo has made a firm bid for the title: ‘Classic Motorcycle Capital of Australia’.

How so? Well, two very substantial and valuable collections are now ensconced in permanent premises in the city. One in Castlemaine, the other in the heart of Bendigo.

We were able to visit these two incredible displays during “Viva Bendigo” promotions, celebrating the most impressive ‘Elvis: Direct from Graceland’ exhibition at the city’s art gallery. And, BTW, Elvis’s last custom FLH Harley-Davidson is also on display as part of the exhibit, but that’s another story. (Edit: the Elvis exhibition closed in July after a record-breaking run)

The delightfully eccentric surgeon and vintage motorcycle aficionado, Dr Dugal James, has finally found a home for his many Indian, BMW and various Italian machines with the acquisition of the former Black Swan Hotel on McRae St. With the working title of ‘Indigo’ (a word combo of Indian and Bendigo) the once-bustling nightspot will be transformed into Dr James’ vision with the hope that it will become a major tourism drawcard for riders and tourists alike.

Currently, the Black Swan is only open on designated days and by appointment, but the good doctor is happy to open on weekends to visiting groups, clubs and enthusiasts by prior arrangement.

With the historic and ornate city of Bendigo less than two hours from the centre of Melbourne, the former gold rush hub is a no-brainer for day rides, especially in the generous daylight saving season.

Dr James is particularly well-known as an enthusiast of Indian motorcycles with what is almost certainly the largest private collection of the marque in Australia. With around 100 mainly early- to mid-20th-century restored and preserved machines to display, there’s plenty to attract those with even just a passing interest in motorcycles. 

The cream of the collection is his priceless 1901 model, one of only three survivors from the first years of production.

“It’s a very important find that I bought at auction, which was inserted into the catalogue at the last minute, so maybe didn’t attract as much attention as it normally would have,” said Dr James, who understandably declined to reveal exactly how much he paid for it.

“I do plan to exhibit a variety of marques and styles and to also have friends’ bikes on display with the intention of having a variety of themes every two or three months to inspire repeat visits,” Dr James told Riding On.

Forty minutes away is Dave Reidie’s astonishing collection of (mainly) vintage Harley-Davidsons.  There are a couple of surprises like a Crocker, Vincent and an Indian, but mostly it’s a shrine to Milwaukee offerings.

Older riders might remember Dave was the proprietor of the Melbourne Harley-Davidson dealership, Harley City, from 1981 to 2017 and continues collecting, riding, and restoring today.

He’s secured his collection in a brand new industrial unit just outside of Castlemaine and welcomes visitors by prior arrangement. We caught up with him recently for a chat (after we picked up our jaw).

RE: Dave, tell me, this is a brilliant collection, how long has it taken you to put this together?
DR: About 40 years, Unfortunately, it takes that long.
RE: Now, the obvious questions I have are “how many have you got” and “what is your favourite” and “what is the most valuable”?
DR: I think there’s about 50 of ours here and there’s probably eight or nine of other peoples that leave them here. It was never a numbers game; it was purely about finding unique machines and mainly machines that are unique to Harley’s history.
RE: Well, I think by any measure you’ve been successful in that endeavour.  There must be a favourite somewhere amongst here?
DR: Not really. I always say the favourite is the one you are riding at the particular time.  Look, there are some that are more desirable, more valuable than others.  But, you know, they are all hand-chosen just fitted our eclectic taste.
RE: Looking at them, many are kind of standard, but there are obviously a lot of heavily modified racers particularly from the – am I guessing here if I say the ‘20s and ‘30s?
DR: That’s the era we ended up being focused on.  Probably started on bikes from the ‘50s and ‘60s that we related to.  But then we worked our way down and Harley have a really rich history of building really cool racers in the ‘20s and early ‘30s.  And that was the area that we sort of concentrated on.  And it was also in that period that period-modified started, so the really cool bobbers and all that originated from that era.  And if you were lucky enough you started with a race bike to build the ultimate bobber, and we are fortunate enough to have a couple of those.
RE: Excellent.   Well, I can see there are some pretty exciting machines here.  I think the only time I’ve ever seen a comparable collection is actually in the museum itself in Milwaukee.  Would I be close in that approximation?
DR: Again, the Milwaukee collection is fabulous and it’s far broader and generally of stock machines.  Where this is, you know, we were a dealer for 40 years and this is just what appealed to our taste.  We were also into customizing, chopping, riding, racing and so those were the bikes that appealed.  And if they were modified that didn’t matter too much.  And we generally left them in as-found condition.
RE: And (the premises) is beautifully presented, you’ve got brand new premises here, you’ve got wonderful photos on the wall and all sorts of memorabilia all around the place.  How can the public see this?
DR: They can go to our website and open days are posted on there.

Apart from these two outstanding collections, it’s worth popping in to see Rod Hadfield’s outrageous hot rod collection at Chewton and the ferocious chopper he built on a whim. 

On our tour of the region, we also stopped for excellent pastries at the Harcourt General Store only to learn that proprietor and chef, Annette Larsen, is the custodian of her late father’s collection of vintage motorcycles, mainly BSAs. We’ve left with full bellies but not before encouraging Annette to bring a couple bikes in to enthral passing riders. 

When you’re done with motorcycles, there are a multitude of wineries to explore (learn to spit) and great accommodations to keep you in the region. I bet you didn’t know that Bendigo is actually a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, so if you do decide to stay over, there are plenty of foodie fetishes to delight you.

Bendigo Tourism

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