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PAUL M. BROKAW
His life as it pertained to motorcycles
Written by Bill Brokaw
Paul got his start in motorcycling when he was employed as a lad by a flying circus. The year was 1919. (See: Paul the Pilot) The top aviator had a motorcycle which Paul snuck a ride on one night. He evidently did not do well as learning to ride became a goal. A “basket-case” Indian was acquired and with work, became his first motorcycle. Other interests came and went over the years but riding a motorcycle was the one constant, aside from his wife Neda, that is. (See: Paul the Race Car Driver) Paul’s balance was somewhat damaged in 1943 by a then new spinal anesthetic when he had appendicitis. This caught up with him in his mid 70s when he returned from a ride on his Yamaha 500 and told Neda “that was it.” He had a scare coming to a stop and recognized that he was no longer safe on the bike. He never told about that day without tears welling in his eyes.
See honeymoon story - - -
The new Indian and sidecar that Paul and Neda acquired while in Wyoming inspired him to become an Indian dealer upon returning to Waterloo, Iowa. His business there was auto repair so with the 1927 models, Indians were added. Soon the motorcycle business won out and a new shop building was built. The most impressive part of this building was the shop as that was closest to his heart. A full machine shop was rapidly developed where racing modifications were done, as well as the usual repairs. Paul developed hop-up procedures for the Indian Scout and a method of hardening using an oxyacetylene torch. This information was marketed internationally. Paul became a successful pro class hillclimber on the Indians he built.
The 101 Scout was his favorite as it handled the dirt and sandy roads of Iowa like no other machine. Indian’s announcement of the 1932 models showed no 101 and the Scout engine was in the Chief chassis. Paul was in shock. He had become a dominant dealer in those five years, handily outselling the local Harley-Davidson dealer. He evidently thought he may be able to apply some influence, so he climbed on his Indian and rode to the factory in Massachusetts for a pow wow. Clearly he met with stone faces rather than the peace pipe. On the return ride he stopped by the Harley factory in Milwaukee and started the proceedings to become the Waterloo Harley dealer. His Indian customers needed a dealer so he set his mechanic up as his competitor. After a period of adjustment he started selling two Harleys for each Indian sold in the town.
The depression did not really hit Iowa until about then. It must have moved rather slowly across the country as he had his best selling year when things were a mess in the east. Neda deposited Saturdays receipts in the bank one day, only to find the bank locked up on Monday. Their only cash was what was in the till to make change. The town was suddenly in the depression. That was in 1932 and Neda was pregnant. She was able to talk the banker out of enough of their funds to pay the hospital and doctor. They sold their shop equipment and whatever else was saleable to make the payments on the building. The next winter the shop office was all that was heated. That only by a small stove using driftwood from the Cedar River a block away. Coal was unaffordable. Work still came in as motorcycles were the most economical way to get around in such times.
Iowa gradually pulled out of the depression and by 1939 two of Paul’s customers told him that they were going to buy Triumph Tiger 100s from someone and they would rather it be him. So he got in a couple out of Canada. Up until the war started for the U.S., these bikes cut quite a figure around the area. They led to Paul’s conclusion that following the war, if there was a British motorcycle industry, he would be selling British bikes.
With Pearl Harbor the majority of bike riders, being young, were off to the services. Paul tried to enlist in the Air Force, but at 38 he was too old. He went to work at the Harley factory and compiled the service manual for the WD45 military bike. Neda kept the shop open with one mechanic. Joe Ryan was the service manager at the factory in those days and was near retirement. They were great friends. Joe asked Paul, at some point, to take over for him. That would mean a move to Milwaukee and Paul turned him down. Joe never spoke to him again.
The Army needed to train mechanics to service the motorcycles and Paul was selected for the task. Paul was sent to Ft. Crook in Nebraska. He set up the school and found an apartment. Neda left the shop in the hands of the mechanic, loaded son Billy, me, in the Goulding sidecar attached to their Harley 74, and off we went to join him. In about a year the Army figured they had enough mechanics. Paul was then sent to the Tank Automotive Center in Detroit where he answered service questions from the field about motorcycles and also the Mack Prime Movers. These were the largest wheeled vehicles in the military, for which he was schooled at the Mack factory. Quite a contrast.
It was there that his eyes started failing from the desk work that involved about all his waking hours. He came home and went up to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for his eyes, and while there, his appendix ruptured. A lost blood test almost cost him his life. A long recuperation was to follow. From May through October of 1944 was spent in Ten Sleep, Wyoming where their honeymoon was spent.
By the end of the war Paul was ready to sell those British bikes. The Harley shop was sold to a customer in 1946 and a shop building was constructed behind the family home on a dirt road outside Cedar Falls, about 7 miles from Waterloo. Triumph, BSA, and Ariel franchises were lined up. The first bike was a Speed Twin Triumph. Paul rode it over a hump and the forks stuck fully extended! He wheeled it to the chicken coop to dismantle it, out of sight, and fix the problem. That bike was the root of Annie and I getting together. It would be the catalyst for our two father’s meeting.
Paul had been writing for the Motorcyclist magazine under the byline of “Shop Foreman.” as well as technical articles under his own name. When the magazine’s editor, Bill Smith, was preparing to depart the editorship, he suggested that Paul be contacted about the job. At this time the 1947 Daytona races were occurring, with Paul and family attending. Somehow the publisher, Arthur Welch, was able to contact him there. Paul quickly decided that such a challenge and Southern California beat a little shop behind the house in Iowa. In a month’s time, we returned to Iowa, found a buyer for the ten acres that included the house, shop and dealership in one of their customers. What would not fit in a one wheel trailer behind our Studebaker Champion was put in storage at a parent’s house. We reached Los Angeles and Paul was on the job at the Bendix Building in Los Angeles. I was 14, their only kid.
Paul’s first race report was for that Daytona. His lively reporting style put the reader decidedly at the event. The April issue was a shared endeavor between Paul, Bill Smith, and Neda, who was on staff as well. Bill was gone for the May issue, which cost $1,792.78 to put out.
Two years was Paul’s ride as editor. Used to being his own boss he could not handle the stifling by the publisher of his progressive plans. At that time there were no road tests being done. Paul wanted to hire Pee Wee Cullum to do testing. Pee Wee was a speedway scratch rider of note. The publisher expected him to do it for the pleasure of seeing his name in the magazine. So the real magazine changes were left to come later for Joe Parkhurst and his Cycle World magazine to accomplish. Paul returned to the retail motorcycle business in East Los Angeles, taking over a location that was being closed as a second store of an out-of-town dealer. Neda stayed on at the Motorcyclist until the shop needed her, and was actually the editor for many months. But another was given the credit as it would not be acceptable for a woman to edit a motorcycle magazine.
Brands sold at that location were Triumph, AJS, Matchless, and for a brief time, Indian. He was told he would have to become an exclusive Indian dealer. Not likely.
Paul had a building built two miles east, in Montebello, a year later. This changed the clientele quite a bit more than expected, fortunately more to his liking. At this new location opened in 1950, the German NSU, BMW, and Zundapps were added. Neda was called back and things were rolling along until I, who was working there, was drafted in 1953. With that, Paul announced that he was going to close on Mondays, explaining that six days a week wass just too much. I am not aware of any other shop being closed beyond Sunday at that time.
In March of 1955 I got out of the Army, went to Florida and got engaged, then went back to work for my dad. To my surprise there were then several shops closing on Mondays around the region. Paul never took credit for starting something but I have to wonder.
At the end of the ‘55 season, Johnson Motors advised that only exclusive Triumph dealers would be renewed for 1956. By today’s standards, having all those brands, one would think it would be a volume dealership. The ‘50s were anything but volume. Triumph was the main line but Paul was not about to put all his eggs in one basket, giving Johnson’s control over his business. So I was layed off. I found a job at Bates Mfg. based mainly on my being good friends with Bob Bates. I tried to earn my keep but that is where I learned that I was not happy in a structured environment. Unpredictably, with Triumph out of the way, Matchless and the German stuff really took off. Six months and Paul was needing help big time. So I was back. Paul and Neda took off for a month in August to Pikes Peak country. They wound up buying a house in the gold mining town of Victor for a summer place.
Paul’s health, which was never right after his sickness in ‘43, was now making the workload hard. So in March of 1957 Paul and Neda financed Annie and I, in total, and we took over the store and by May they were headed for Victor. Paul continued to write technical articles for the Motorcyclist. His series on motorcycle engine design, for which he did all the drawings as well, was compiled into a book and marketed. The updates of the Motorcyclist’s Q&A book for years was his baby. He wrote for Motorcycle Dealer News as well.
Many summers were spent in Victor. They made the full move in 1963 with the purchase of a house in Canon City. They were key in making possible our move to Colorado Springs in January of 1965. Paul became a student of hard rock gold mining and became a tourist guide in the El Paso gold mine. He wrote a fiction story based on that experience that I finished after he died. It was never published. He and Neda rode their motorcycle all over the area around the gold camp and Canon City, jeep roads preferred.