ONE BIKE IS NEVER ENOUGH
A couple of weeks after Pushies Galore 2012 I headed up the range to Toowoomba for a day talking bikes with bicycle aficionado James Macdonald. James was well known as a collector of old bikes, but the notable bike collection that James had curated was just one part of a life shaped by many other influences. The appreciation that James had acquired in his lifetime for design and technology, combined with a passion for history, formed the basis for his impressive collection of old bikes which is still housed in and around his Toowoomba “Queenslander” home.
This is an expanded repost of an earlier article which for unexplained reasons vanished together with a second post about James’ wheelset shod with cork tyres. In August 2012 James had generously allowed me to photograph his home filled with old bikes, books and collected objects. Sadly in early 2014 James passed away. Many bike enthusiasts remember the unique way that James displayed his bicycle collection throughout his house. Yet there are many more who never got to see James’ historic bicycle display. The images used to illustrate this post represent a unique moment in time and an authentic document shot when James was in his element. These photographs were taken on a day when he was showing a group of fellow bike collectors his old bikes while sharing stories about bikes and their related history.
I’d met James at Pushies Galore where he’d been handing out a flyer inviting anyone interested in old bikes to join him on Brisbane “Ekka” show day, on the 15th of August 2012. James was selling off some of his vintage bicycle collection, he was simply running out of space. James had stamped his mark on his high set Queenslander house by filling it’s rooms with old bicycles, despite the number of bicycles on display, the house remained uncluttered in the main living areas. This is one of those houses which says so much more about it’s principal occupant than just being a place to live. James had indelibly worked his mindset into the streetscape out front and throughout the entire property. Every inch of space the personification of James himself.
Upon arrival you knew you were in the right place, James’ old Bedford truck was parked out front. As you walked along the garden pathways an obscured view gradually revealed a garden filled with bikes. Look up and you would see wide open verandah’s hung floor to ceiling with old bicycles.
I’d arrived by motorcycle and as soon as I walked into James’ downstairs workshop we now had two types of bikes to talk about, motorcycles and bicycles. James explained that his previous passion for bikes wasn’t bicycles. This collecting pattern was repeated once before, long before bicycles James had collected old English motorcycles. Collecting motorcycles had it's drawbacks. James explained that bicycles aren't as expensive to maintain or purchase as motorcycles, and if you are a true collector of things then it's a no brainer with bicycles - you can fit lots more bicycles into the same space where the motorcycles once stood. To boot the workshop we were standing in had once housed James’ motorcycle collection. James told me he’d followed the long tradition of raising Queenslander houses higher on their stumps, to make space underneath for his motorcycles and eventually this space gave way to a generous bicycle workshop. More than thirty years before James had sold off his entire collection of classic British motorcycles. Followed by searching the globe for bicycles of rare and special origin. The big breakthrough came in 2010 when James bought most of the contents of the Canberra Bicycle Museum which was closing it’s doors. The National Museum in Canberra sought out only one bike from the bicycle Museum, the bike which had belonged to Ernie Old . James was in the right place at the right time to take the rest of the bikes home to Toowoomba. These were all bikes which James would not have easily found anywhere else, no matter how many sales and swap meets he’d visited. James had formed one of the most significant historical bicycle collections in Australia.
One of the principles that James had used to establish his collection was that the bikes were there to be ridden. This also meant that James was not the sort of collector to seek out pristine bikes that would never see life outside of a glass cabinet. Most of the bikes belonging to James were in totally original condition, giving them a unique appeal by retaining an original patina. Bike collectors have one thing in common, an unstoppable desire to focus on certain aspects of collecting. What bike collectors choose to focus their collections on and the way they go about it is what makes each and every bike collector different. I know of several bike collections that incorporate only Bianchi bicycles. Some collectors choose only 1980’s or 1990’s racing bicycles, while others become generalists. Then there are those who chase after Swiss and Italian gold plated parts from the 1980’s.
With James his old bicycles matched his personality and his carefully organised wooden house perfectly, all blending seamlessly together as if each and every random object were always meant to be together in this place. Set amongst large mature trees, James had arranged the three levels with ladders as well as the original stairs for access, giving the place the feeling of a large tree house for bicycles. Old Queensland houses have been adapted for generations, their single skin walls easily moved. Adding to the tree house feel, James had arranged the floor plan so that you could access views from one room to the next with ease .. more bikes to see around every corner.
The flyer which James distributed at Pushies Galore 2012 was printed on blue paper with a faint imprint of hundreds of old bicycle names as a background for his message. There was a landline telephone number, no email address and details about the bike sale, open day, swap meet at James’ house. Sitting in James’ office you knew why he’d handed out the paper flyer, he wasn’t a fan of computers and surrounded himself with a vast collection of books, including a large library of cycling books. Once James started talking about bikes you knew he’d gained a lot his bike knowledge from words printed on paper.
Cups of tea were the order of the day at James’ house, the kettle was always on the boil, and James’ distinctive large double lined metal tea mugs were constantly being rinsed under the tap then refilled. In this it was plain to see that the bike collection was part of James’ life but this did not define him. The bikes were incorporated into the fabric of life itself, the tea, the conversations, friendships and family.
James was inviting anyone to bring a bike so that we could ride the streets of Toowoomba so later in the day when all the collectors had gone home, James setup his tandem that could be steered from the rear seat and I took that for a ride as well as a late 19th century English gentleman’s bike. Steering a bike solo from so far back was a whole new thing, you’d point the front wheel around a corner and the front of the bike would be around the corner while you were still riding along the other street. James said the bikes at the museum were locked away, designated as - Do Not Touch - EVER - not at James' place, it's off to the park for a ride even for the rare old examples. Just pump up the tires and off you go.
In the tradition of Australia’s bike riding shearers James also rode old bicycles on long journeys along dusty dirt roads, the old school way, single speed on simple steel bicycles. His flyer for his swap meet read, “Dealer free, Lycra free, No Corporates, No Shops, Only Old Bikes and Collectors, Bring some junk and Deal, Bring a bike and ride Toowoomba’s parks and gardens." Most importantly James wrote “One Bike Is Never Enough”!
While I was writing this post I felt compelled to boil the kettle and make a cup of tea and remember James, off you go, put the kettle on.
All images by Robert Cobcroft Hipshots