By Sheldon Payne

In 1974 I traveled  to Elkhart Lake/Road America to take in the Can Am. I stayed at Siebkens Resort where the drivers and Mitchell’s entourage were staying. Several Design Staff show cars and custom bikes made the trip with him. The Ducati GT 750 is on the right.—Gary

 

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.

12 Comments
  1. Great story!
    Mr. Mitchell was known to prowl the employee parking lot looking for VW Beetles,and their owners identities.

  2. David R.North

    Of course I rember Sheldon,nice guy. Yes , Bill could be a terror,
    But when you really got to know him,he was a great guy.
    I had a similar experience with him. I was going to a party at
    Larry Shinota,s this is when he was at Ford. bill did not want me
    To look shabby., so he gave me a aluminum body B.M.W.
    Which he had just got to take. Yes,it got recked!
    When I drove in the garage they said “boy,are you going to chech
    Hell! I went right up to his office and told him.
    He smiled and said ” that’s nothing Kid, I really tore up
    mr. earl,s new Cadillac,and he didnot even know I took it!

  3. David R.North

    Pete Maier called and told me about Sheldon,s post.
    I am often asked,what happened to all those bikes we
    Had fun doing. I really donot know. bill,s daughter has a
    Ranch by us in Montana, after Bill,s death she said it all
    Just disappeared .

  4. Karl Kendall

    I told Bill the day he retired that I enjoyed claying up the Harley Stingray and other ones. He got excited real quick and said “Its all done in the shops, get over and see it!”
    Three years ago when my wife Pam and I were passing by Sturgis, during their weekend, we hit a rest stop. Our ears were still ringing from thousands of bellowing bikers going around us. I stepped out of our RV to be face to face with the toughest of the bunch! Hoping to be received, I said my buddy Larry Brinker and I once clayed up a Harley for Bill. I discribed it and one biker said he thought he saw it on an auto auction sell for $112,000.00. I pulled out a picture from my RV. Bill made sure we got great photos. The biker said, “Thats it!”
    After that I was received like royalty no matter who I wanted to approach!
    I beleive it was the Honda with gold trim over black paint, that Bill loved, which finally sold him to allow the “Chicken on the hood” Firebird to go to production. I was doing design sculpting in the Pontiac II studio at the time. Things are just not the same are they? Karl Kendall

  5. Karl Kendall

    While I was claying in “Truck Studio”, early 70’s, we created a custom chevy van for Bill. It had protruding pods where the back side window locations were. That created room for Bill’s helmets and leathers. The bench seat had a pull out service platform under it, sets of wrenches etc. The roof converted to an observation platform complete with fold up chrome railing. I never saw the finished presentation.
    I still have the 1970 sguare barrel 400 Maico motocrosser. I know, “Maico Break-o”, but I did pull many Design Center riders out of the Michigan pines as well. Some complained about the fist sized rocks and the very high compression exhaust blasts pounding them.
    Because we clayed-up the GMC Motorhome on the sly in the basement(away from the bean counters), we got Kenny Roberts a motorhome, which he took to Europe and slid it into a ditch I quess.
    Cal Rayborn was real nice and as I escorted Evel Knievel around the studio, I found that he knew some things about trucks that I didn’t know! Seems like he was only out of his mind while on a two-wheeler.
    Like Doug Stollery and Ron Will, I am claying up a dream I have in mind of a leaning reverse trike. Tandem with a new motor Pam and I are about to finish. One moving part like an electric motor only this does not need the electricity! Once creativity gets started and hooked up with our creator, things get very exciting!
    Because of Design Staff experiences, I have just been asked to bid an enlargement of Marilyn Monroe over the subway grating to 26 feet for a permanent bronze at Palm Desert. I’m to old for this kind of stuff.
    Karl

  6. Mark Hitchins

    I have one of the bikes from Bill Mitchell’s collection. He sold it to my father-in-law long before he died. It’s a monocoque cafe racer powered by a 550 Honda 4 cylinder. It was fabricated by Bruce Burness of Pasadena, who worked for Shelby American, Pete Brock, and others before opening his own shop. The bike is mostly aluminum with 16″ Borrani wheels and Dunstall 4 into 2 exhaust. It only has 577 miles on it. It’s painted pearl yellow with matching pearl yellow leathers and accessories. Know anyone who might be interested in buying? Any idea what something like this is worth? The bike is located in Michigan.

  7. Adam Wadecki

    Mark, I might be interested in your bike. Feel free to send pictures to awadecki@gmail.com

    My father, Al Wadecki, purchased two leather outfits (reportedly for–as I recall him telling it–$50/each) from Bill Mitchell during his time at GM Design. One is a bright silver leather suit with a thin red and blue pinstripe circling the arms and running down the legs. The other is a white leather suit with blue and red stars on the arms and legs. Both are made by Bates Custom Leathers.

    I had no idea which bikes these were associated with until Automobile magazine ran a special on Bill Mitchell’s motorcycles in the early 2000s and I saw Mr. Mitchell in the silver suit riding the Stingray Harley. I’m still unsure to which bike the white leather outfit belongs.

    My dad told me on several occassions Mr. Mitchell was a less-than-stellar motorcycle rider. I remember one story he related saying he overhead him screaming/cursing as he was snagged by the design center gate trying to garage one motorcycle. He also told me he walked into mechanical assembly to observe a motorcycle on its stand running with the throttle open. When my dad inquired about the bike, the mechanic stated he was adding miles to the bike so Mr. Mitchell could tell his friends he had ridden it much more than he really had.

  8. Adam, Buick I Studio on the second floor of the Design Building where I was assigned for several years faced south and overlooked the “Ponderosa.” This area was the entrance to the Garage where all of the show cars and Mitchell’s bikes were maintained. The area also served as a viewing area for Truck Studio on the first floor, where large models could be easily rolled outside for review. I happened to witness Mitchell in his silver leathers stalling his bike (I’m assuming) and getting stuck in the automatic gate. He was really mad. I would have hated to be on the receiving end of his fury that day. It was a hoot, but somewhat embarrassing for the Commander-in-Chief to be humiliated in that way. Of course, his rather portly form being stuffed in the leathers on one of his custom bikes to make a few laps around the Tech Center was also pretty embarrassing.

  9. Sheldon Payne

    The ’72 Suzuki GT550 I bought from Mitchell only had around 280 miles on the odo, and Ken Eschenbach told me a good share of them were spun up in Mechanical Assy, per his direction. As it turned out, Mitchell didn’t like the bike, due in large part to the 2-stroke motor. He let it go for about half price, and I was delighted.

  10. John Koller

    I own the Yamaha pictures on the right. Can anyone tell me the history of it? I believe it’s an old Yamaha production racer, and I have a photocopy of the title in Mitchell’s name.

  11. David R. North

    Good memories you guys,those are really fun times and Bill had a great time doing the bikes and just being one of the guys.
    His daughter lives on a ranch near us here in Montana.
    We trade photos and stories about her dad. She has told me
    The bike hoby really got her dad through the bad times just
    Before he retired.

  12. Norman

    Does anyone have a comprehensive set of photo of Mitchell’s bikes (and helmets, and jackets…) ?

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