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Paul Dean

Traub: Rare Bike a Blast From the Past

November 28, 1987|Paul Dean

Geraldo Rivera's problem may well have been that he picked the wrong bad guy and the wrong basement in the wrong part of Chicago.

He should have broadcast from suburban Cicero and an elderly three-story home with a porch, bad plumbing and a much more productive past.

And there, Rivera's camera crew might have found, as a plumbing crew has found, an antique motorcycle stolen sometime before Prohibition and boarded up beneath the porch and against a basement wall of the house since 1918.

So it wasn't Al Capone's motorcycle.

But it was, and is, a valued artifact, a prototype from an overcrowded era when more than a hundred small shops began building motorcycles but only three--Harley, Indian and Excelsior--survived.

"It was developed in 1916 by a man called Traub," explained Richard Morris of Gardena, current owner of the bike. "Because that name appears on the gas tank, in script, and on the timing cover, in Gothic, and again, embossed, on the bottom of the crank case.

"Being a one-off (prototype) thing, I would say it is his (Traub's) own engine. The frame is his own and the transmission is late Thor. It's a V-twin, three-speed, 72-cubic-inch, side valve . . . and the only design weakness is that it has tremendously flimsy valve springs."

Morris, a collector of motorcycles, an expert in the hobby, has been unable to find any written references to a Traub motorcycle or a builder by that name.

He can only guess that the man was German, obviously a machinist and probably a gunsmith, because "to build a motorcycle you needed a foundry, boring and milling equipment . . . anybody with that kind of equipment, and a German, had to be a gunsmith.

"So the Traub was one man's idea that became impossible with World War I when factories went over to war production. Everybody except the Big Three lost their butts in motorcycles. The little guys, between 100 and 150 of them, just died."

The criminal past of the Traub is almost as wispy as its mechanical history.

Morris begs all to bear in mind that the story is how he heard it from Hollywood stunt man Bud Eakins, who bought the motorcycle in Chicago from a Suzuki dealer named George Tacci.

Tacci, sly sort, had generously taken the Traub in trade on a Suzuki 125. His deal was with a Chicago firefighter who had just bought the Cicero house with the bad plumbing.

Still with us? OK. The firefighter, according to Morris, Eakins and Tacci, called in plumbers to repair his pipes. Their only access of minimum damage was to break open the porch and approach the basement wall from the outside.

And there, kept warm and dry and unrusted by wall warmth from an oil furnace for more than a half century of Chicago winters, was the orange and butterscotch-brown motorcycle.

It bore a 1918 license plate. The white rubber tires needed only air and Armor-All. The engine was virtually new.

The firefighter pulled a title search on the house and found a family name and then one old man who knew the secret.

The Traub, he said, had been stolen by a young man of the family.

His father found out and, in fury, ordered his son to join the Army.

Dad boarded the bike beneath the porch.

The boy was killed in France in World War I.

The Traub is the gem of Morris' collection of 40 American motorcycles: Indians, Harleys, Hendersons, Aces, Clevelands. Morris shows his machines and is displaying the Traub today at the Anaheim Motorcycle and ATV Expo at the Anaheim Convention Center.

It's also an antique he rides, one that creates a mood. "I feel as though I'm transcending Traub's dream, making it my own," Morris said. "It's all very mystical.

"But I become him, riding a phantom bike that is some unfinished piece of business on wheels."

Anaheim Motorcycle and ATV Expo, today, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Anaheim Convention Center. Telephone: (714) 490-2867.

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