Photography: William Taufic
Sixteen years ago, the Guggenheim Museum shocked the Manhattan art world with an enormous exhibition titled The Art of the Motorcycle.Critics scoffed, but it pulled in big crowds. Not even King Tut had an edge on the bespoke machines. This interest in vintage iron doesn’t seem surprising today, particularly with the growing popularity of local events like Caffeine & Carburetors in New Canaan, where hundreds of automotive enthusiasts gather to indulge their inner gear head. But before there were spectators, there were collectors. Across our towns, there are countless obsessives who comb the county for that magneto spring that will bring the old flivver to life again.
Buzz Kanter understands this. The New Canaan resident maintains a fleet of antique motorcycles, some a century old. As the CEO of TAM Communications—publisher of motorcycle magazines including American Iron—Kanter also has interesting contacts in the field. He once went riding with Malcolm Forbes, whose horde of bikes rivaled his collection of Fabergé eggs. Kanter’s sentiments about collecting are similar to those of his friend Jay Leno. It’s all about the emotional response. “To misquote Jay,” he says, “I invest in things I understand and love.”
The collecting craze has been kicked into high gear by shows like American Pickers, which also have helped push prices of antique bikes into a higher strata. “For some people it’s an investment; they study what’s trending,” says Kanter. “I’ve never considered myself a collector. In my mind, that’s someone who buys something, puts it against the wall and calls it art. I’m more of a rider. I’ve got a garage full of things to ride.”
And ride he does. Earlier this year, Kanter, Pat Simmons—founder of the Doobie Brothers band—and Pat’s wife, Cris, did a cross-country Cannonball jaunt on some glorious old bikes. Kanter’s 1936 Harley-Davidson VLH was the newbie machine. Surgery and rehab were constant during the trip, but the riders finished it grinning.
Kanter’s first exposure to the sport came in high school, when his parents brought home a Honda 50 off-road bike for their kids to ride in the woods near their north Stamford home. “They said they’d never let us ride a full-sized motorcycle, which was a mixed message,” he says. “We beat the heck out of that thing.” As a student at UConn, Kanter didn’t tell his folks about his next motorcycle, which was considerably faster. Eventually, he got a racing license and campaigned superbikes at tracks across the Northeast. Then, during a race in 1979, he got hit. “I was trying to make a turn, but the guy trying to get past me didn’t. We hit the ground at about 130 mph. I said, ‘I’m done.’”
After he hung up his racing leathers, Kanter found more time to work at his parents’ business, Penny Press in Norwalk, a publisher of crossword-puzzle magazines. He also attended the University of New Haven, where he earned a master’s degree. For his 1989 thesis, he started a bike-gear classified listing called Old Bike Journal. That led to his present operation, TAM Communications. In his office is a rack of ancient Harley engines, which, cleaned and painted, look like Babylonian artifacts. A 1915 Harley he calls Selma is parked here, along with a vintage Italian make and a distinguished oddball called the Airone, which occupies one corner.
Fairfield County, he knows, is a hotbed of collectors. “I have several friends into vintage machines,” he says. “There’s a group of us who meet every Sunday at Blind Charlie’s Café in Scotts Corners [in Pound Ridge, New York]. Twenty or thirty bikes show up.” Some machines are the latest and fastest. And then there are guys like Kanter who show up with a Ducati 250, a slower machine but still a jewel to anyone who recognizes the beauty of its wonderfully finned engine. Kanter prefers a more sedate pace on runs into the hills with the Blind Charlie’s gang. More ambitious are the MotoGiro events, two-day competitions on old bikes running at legal speeds along New England’s back roads. “I started racing again, after thirty years,” Kanter admits.
His snarling race bike of choice? A 1937 Indian, purchased at an auction. After restoring it, Kanter took it to vintage races in New Hampshire. “I had mechanical problems all three times,” he says with a wide smile. Nobody knows if loving the old machines is to love wisely, but if you love classic motorcycles, you love well.
To see some of Kanter’s vintage bikes, throttle up and head over to the Carriage Barn Arts Center for the “Va Va Vroom” exhibit on display through June 14. carriagebarn.org
Kanter (at left) with Pat Simmons (third from left) and Team American Iron for the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball
Kanter on a 1929 Harley-Davidson he rode from New York to San Francisco in 2012
The original horn cover on his 1931 Indian 101 Scout
The in-line, four-cylinder exhaust manifold on a 1930 Indian 4
The original fender light and fender tip on Kanter’s 1936 Harley Knucklehead