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A Kickstand Cognoscente

July 19, 1998|Susan Carpenter

When Guy Webster looks at vintage Italian motorcycles, he doesn't see only engineering and craftsmanship. He also sees women. "Look at those exhaust pipes," Webster says, waving his hand toward a 42-year-old Parilla 175--a petite, curvaceous red sport bike. "Beautiful. And the shape of the tank--sexy, very feminine."

Featuring a Gucci-like saddle and a fender ornament, this Parilla is one of 70 bikes in Webster's collection of famous Italian sport and racing motorcycles that most Americans have never heard of--Laverdas, Mondials, Gileras, Moto Guzzis, MV Agustas. And, according to Webster, it is the largest collection of limited-edition and handmade motorbikes of its kind in the United States. All of the bikes hail from the '50s, '60s and '70s, with one exception: Webster's own riding bike is a 1998 Ducati 916 SPS 996, the presence of which he legitimizes with the excuse that it is a "modern classic."

The seed for this collection of anthropomorphic sculptures was first planted in 1973, when Webster, who had been working as a celebrity photographer, moved to Florence, Italy, and found the Italians buying only Japanese motorcycles at a local dealership. Incredulous, he says that the Italians didn't want their own bikes. "In the back of my mind I thought, 'Someday, if I have enough money, I'd love to have a basement filled with these beautiful works of art.' "

After buying his first bike, a 1957 MV Agusta, for $200, he purchased two more in Italy, and brought them back with him to the States, parking them in his living room. Since then, his collection has moved to what he deems a "museum," which is really just a barn in Ojai, where he lives, and is occasionally open to the public. (A sign out front reads "Last Chance Garage.")

The bikes, which cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to restore, are now worth, according to Webster, from $3,000 for a 1962 Moto Morini to $100,000 for a full-factory 1956 Gilera Saturno Piuma Corsa. But Webster doesn't value his collection in terms of dollars. Befitting an Italophile, he would like nothing more than to own a 1959 Barchetta Ferrari, the extremely rare sports car that is worth about $1 million, which he doesn't have--yet.

But Webster, now 58, is facing the quintessential problem for all collectors--space. "I'm trying to get down to 60," he says, as if trying to shed some extra pounds. "I have 70 bikes, and I don't want any more."

Temporarily easing the strain, he recently loaned five of his motorcycles to the Guggenheim Museum in New York for an exhibit titled "Art of the Motorcycle," which opened in June and will remain through September.

As he hauls "brand new old tires" from his house to the barn, Webster deadpans: "I'm a slave to this collection. There's no reward for this. It's not like I'm going to get an extra star in heaven."

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