By Sheldon Payne
During the years 1969 and 1975, I worked for GM’s Body Development Studio at Design Staff and used to build motorcycle models at home in the winter to satisfy my desire for the real thing. The ones I spent the most time on were exquisite 1:9 models of exotic European grand prix bikes, made by Provini of Italy. Often I’d put one on my tabourette because I enjoyed looking at them, even while working.
One day Bill Mitchell and his entourage walked by, and the model caught his eye, motorcycles being one of his other keen interests. In discussing the model, he asked if I would build him one, to which I answered yes, since I got as much pleasure in the building as I did in displaying them.
When I took the completed model to him, he offered to pay me, but I said I’d rather he let me ride one of his many customized motorcycles. He agreed and said to work out the details with Dave North and Ken Eschenbach. Dave may not remember any of this, including who I am, but in one instance, the bike I was to borrow was at Mitchell’s home in Bloomfield Hills. So my wife, Barbara, drove me over there after work on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. The motorcycle was a much customized candy-apple red Ducati GT 750, which he advised required a rather lengthy warm-up.
As it happened Mitchell and his wife had an engagement that evening, so he was eager that I get going. Accordingly, I mounted up and rode off with a lot of choke in order to keep the engine from stalling. On the way, I stopped by Christ Church, where Barbara was waiting, to let her know my route home. I dismounted the bike, put it on the side stand and walked back to the car, leaving the engine running. At that time, Ducati used a return spring on the side stand, so with the Duc pointing slightly downward toward the curb, the vibration of the engine caused it to move forward with every firing of the cylinders. The result was the side stand retracted and the bike tipped over. With fuel was spilling out of the gas tank and the engine still running, I immediately panicked, but ran over, lifted the bike and shut off the engine. (Adrenalin is an amazing thing.)
Afraid the Mitchells would drive by on their way to their evening affair, I quickly picked up the pieces, threw them in the car, ran back to the bike and rode off home. All the way to Lake Orion, I was trying to figure out how I’d get replacement parts and put things right, not knowing the real extent of the damage. For the remainder of the weekend, I drove as far as Flint in search of a clutch lever, left front turn signal, left foot peg rubber and whatever else I’d screwed up. Even though it was a three day weekend, there was neither time nor inclination to ride for pleasure, the main purpose in borrowing it to begin with.
When Tuesday came around, I really dreaded telling him I’d dropped his baby, even considered not mentioning at all, given his famous short temper and impatience with idiots. It turned out, the only remaining damage was some fine stress cracks to the clear coat on the fairing, so apart from that, I was able to repair it good as new.
When I got to his house, he was in the garage, having just arrived from work, and of course, his immediate remarks were something like, “Well, how’d it go?” I swallowed hard and said it was great, but I did have a bit of an accident. He began to turn red, something he was rather famous for, but as I filled in the details while he looked the bike over, he relaxed some. Then he turned to me and said, “Well it looks okay, and anyway, don’t worry. Hell, I dropped the Gold Wing on a side road near here this weekend, and if it hadn’t been for two kids in a Camaro who happened by, I’d still be in the ditch with the goddam thing.”
Greatly relieved, I thanked him profusely for the use of the bike and hastily beat it down the driveway. I didn’t want Barbara to come close to the house, because at that time I was driving a VW Beatle, a car disliked intensely. He reportedly said people who drive those things have dirty underwear, and I sure didn’t want him to think that of me so I could borrow another motorcycle at a later time. Thanks to Dave North I was able to, as well as be included in some of Mitchell’s motorcycle related gatherings.
More photos from: the Road America gathering of GM Design Showcars.