Former home of the '66 TT - somewhere on the edge of the desert, near Barstow, California
OK, I've thought long and hard about this. Forget all the claptrap that guy from Bates' MCs - or whatever the place was called - gave me about some dude named "Jed" that used to campaign this TT in desert races before getting blown away in 'Nam. I wasn't convinced by it. The Bonneville was never considered a great bike for desert racing, where reliability took precedence over speed and the Trophy was the weapon of choice among those who knew their stuff. However, some undoubtedly did race Bonnevilles - including the TT Special - in the desert, most famously, Steve McQueen. Others rode them just for fun.
My '66 TT was used as a desert bike - though I'm not sure it could be accurately described as a true "desert sled" as such. It was never registered in California and only ever used off road. It had been basically kitted out for desert use with high'level pipes, a rear Trials Universal, foam air filters and little else.
The 1966 TT Special c. 2000, having seen little use for many years
During a visit to California in September 2015 I managed to track down the original home of Jim, the owner of the TT, somewhere not far from Barstow, on the edge of the Mojave. I'd heard he'd passed on. The family home is now owned by Jim's brother, Dan, a taciturn old fellow who was clearly suspicious of strangers - particularly those of non-American heritage. He was wearing an olive green T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of an Apache gunship and the motto "Peace through Superior Firepower". It was very clear he'd taken an instant dislike to me but when I told him I had his brother's old bike he begrudgingly let me in, muttering something darkly about Limeys with beards and instructing me to keep my hands in my pockets at all times. Dan wasn't the first xeno-pogonophobe I'd met but I could sense, beneath the hostile exterior, a story waiting to get out...
Jim's old workshop
Jim bought the bike when it was little over a year old in May 1967 off a Hells Angel, Dan told me, matter of factly. He never did care much for his younger sibling - too wayward by far. It had no title but Jim didn't mind, he never intended riding it on the road anyway. It was in pretty much standard trim, save for a small headlight and wiring harness off a T100C fitted on a QD bracket, together with horn and a taillight. It had clearly belonged to some kind of hotrod street racer and still had its 11:1 pistons. The Angel said he'd won it in a poker game - that explained why he didn't have a notarised bill of sale. Jim gave him a couple of hundred bucks for it, together with a bag of Acapulco Gold and two blotters of quality Owsley acid.
Jim had received his draft papers that morning and wanted to make the best of his last few weeks of freedom before joining up, and a fast Triumph opened up the potential for a whole new world of fun. That evening he sat out on the veranda, put on the first side of the copy of "Blonde on Blonde" he'd picked up in Barstow earlier and sparked up a joint. "What is this shit?" he muttered to himself as he listened to the first track, but it got better and after a few tokes the new album suddenly made a lot more sense. This Dylan guy kinda rocked, he had to admit - and he rode a Triumph too!
Next morning Jim awoke early and went out to the barn. The TT Special was still there, resting up against the wall, beside his sawed-off shotgun. He took a couple of shells out from his pocket, broke the barrel, loaded it up and aimed at the door. Two loud explosions and a splintered hole in the door left Jed feeling reassured - his marksmanship was still impressive. 'Nam wouldn't be too bad, hell it might even be fun. The recruiting sergeant in Barstow had made it all sound like a ball.
Jim had always liked guns and enjoyed firing the old German MG34 his dad had brought home from Europe at the end of the second world war. When he was a teenager they used to go out at night into the desert with the old machine gun, a tripod and a six-pack of Bud, set the thing up on sustained fire mode and fire off bursts of tracer into the desert night. He never felt closer to his father than at times like these. The nearest neighbour lived about a half mile away and he never complained - nobody ever bothered Pop.
Now Pop was gone, allegedly victim to poison whisky given to him in a roadhouse by a jealous husband. After Mom had died he'd gone a little wild with the ladies, stealing many a woman from her man. He'd taken up playing the guitar, mastering the instrument thoroughly and with a rapidity that was supernatural. There had been numerous altercations and the odd scuffle with the law.
Entrance to the roadhouse where Pop met his Maker
Jim still had the MG34, but the local sheriff had been around asking questions after some kids out camping in the desert one night had reported an unusual amount of automatic gunfire. Technically speaking, he didn't need a license for an automatic weapon, but the cops had been confiscating weapons off youngsters recently following various incidents and he didn't want to risk losing Pop's pride and joy.
Walking over to the TT Bonneville, he twisted the cap off the gas tank and looked inside - still half a tank full. Jim had ridden Pop's old Thunderbird a few times and knew the starting procedure - tickle the carb, switch on the ignition, turn the engine over till it reached its compression stroke and kick it over. This Bonneville looked the same though with two carbs to tickle. He followed the procedure, but when he tried to kick it over it felt solid. He grabbed the bars and jumped onto the kickstart. The thing exploded into life, the sound from its open pipes reminding him, oddly, of that MG34 when he was firing bursts of tracer into the night. He sat on it and revved the engine as it warmed up. This wasn't like Pop's Thunderbird - it felt more like some kind of demented animal bucking beneath him. Jim rolled it out of the splintered barn door, the cacaphony of noise shattering the still morning air, pointed it towards the hills on the horizon, snuck it into first and let out the clutch. The thing kicked forward like a mule and he nudged it into second, shifting up through the box until he was hurling across the sand and rocks, dodging the yuccas. He put his head down and kept barrelling ahead, gripping the bars tight.
Jim's backyard - he'd spend hours riding the TT into the far hills
He soon found himself in a rocky gully, the only way forward leading downhill through softer sand. Jim had misjudged it and panic braked, leading to a front wheel skid and an unceremonious dumping off over the handlebars. He shook himself off and cut the engine using the big kill button. A quick inspection revealed no major damage to bike or body, save for bent handlebars, both TT pipes flattened underneath by hitting a rock, a buckled front wheel and a few bruises. He managed to start it after a few kicks, and eventually managed to steer it out of the gully and back onto the flat. "These Dunlop K70s are useless for the desert", he thought to himself as the tyres struggled for grip, "I need some knobblies - well one on the rear at least. And some of those high-level pipes from that Bud Ekins fella in Hollywood. And some braced bars. And a big rear sprocket for acceleration.And some foam air cleaners. Bashplate. A Bates seat..." The list grew.
Pop's old Jeep
Back home he put on the second disk from the Dylan album. "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" - the album was growing on him. The Bonneville was too - "The World's Fastest Motorcycle" - it said so on the tank. He'd take the pickup truck over to LA the next day and pick up the parts to turn the bike into something better suited to the desert.
Tank badges were often removed for the desert
And so began the transformation of "Blind Willie Death", as he had named the bike. Over the next few months, Jim got as much use out of the bike as he could before he enlisted in the Rangers. He was soon sent out to Vietnam where he acquitted himself with distinction, returning home between tours when he'd take the TT out into the desert and ride hard for hours at a time, sometimes taking a sleeping bag, a bottle of mescal and a handful of peyote buttons with him in a backpack, trying to erase the memories of war. Some said he had a woman out in the hills, one of a lost tribe of Hopi Indians who had settled there. He was a handsome fella and women found him attractive - riding a firebreathin' Triumph helped too.
By this time the bike had the Bud Ekins pipes he had planned for it, foam air filters and knobbly tyres. Jim never did get round to fitting the Bates seat, bashplate or braced bars - they were on his shopping list for when he next paid a visit to Bud Ekins' emporium on Sunset Boulevard with his jump pay. Sadly that was never to be. In June 1968 Jim trod on a landmine at Khe Sanh and was no more. At least that much of the salesman's tale was true.