Old bikes are a lot like people, with quirky personalities and storied pasts. We often debate what their future may look like, but it’s safe to say that when a rare and coveted motorcycle — like the green-frame 1974 Ducati 750SS — is in the hands of an amazing human like David Lee, that future is as solid as we can imagine. We sat down with Lee to see how his well-lived life brought him to own such an amazing machine.
IRON & AIR: Tell us about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and anything else you think the world should know about you.
DAVID LEE: I’m a musician, and I’ve been a motorcycle guy since I was a kid. I started out like most guys do, racing BMX bikes when I was seven or eight years old, which took me into riding push bikes, then a natural progression into motorcycles. My mother hated it and was dead set against it all along the way, but I couldn’t be stopped. I got my first motorcycle when I was 15 and got my driver’s license. I’ve pretty much had a motorcycle all along the way, and I’m just fortunate that they’ve been a big part of my life because I just love them. I’m a guitar player and played in a band called The Legendary Shack Shakers. That sort of got me tied into a network of like-minded guys, and I spent a lot of time with the band in Europe, where there’s a big scene of vintage British and German bikes. We played rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly music; that culture really embraced us and I was able to meet a lot of other people that were into the same type of stuff.
I&A: What’s your process of finding, working on, and selling bikes? It’s an interesting method that seems to have gotten a shot in the arm on the auction website Bring a Trailer (BaT).
DL: Years ago, a friend of mine was selling cars on BaT. They started as a blog that was posting various “Pick of the Week” or Craigslist car finds, and I didn’t know that they had gone into an auction format or that they were selling motorcycles. My friend encouraged me to sell some of my bikes on there and thought that as a rock ‘n’ roller, that I’d be a good fit for it.
After about six months of thinking about it, I finally submitted a bike, and they rejected me. They said that they really weren’t selling many bikes, blah blah blah, and to try again later. A couple months went by and I submitted another bike, and they rejected that one as well. After that, I think that I sent them a photo of my shop and asked if there was anything they’d be interested in. They picked one of the Beemers, so I listed it and honestly, it was amazing.
Over the years of buying these BMWs and storing them away, I’ve just always loved restoring them, modifying them, and riding them. It’s been an organic process of developing relationships with guys, some of which are older guys who don’t ride them anymore and they’re ready to pass them along, so when I get those calls, I love going to meet those people. And it seems like a lot of them play music, so I always bring a guitar and maybe jam a bit. And that’s sort of it, but I’ve been ramping up selling bikes on BaT for a few years and it’s such an interesting dynamic with it being a social media site and an auction site. I’ve met so many great people on there, made great friends, and established great connections. I go on BaT every day — even if I don’t have an auction running — because they’re always curating the most exciting and esoteric stuff.
I&A: While you don’t have any formal experience in marketing, your photos, interactions, and the way that you tee up the experience for your auctions makes you seem like an expert. Can you give us your perspective on how you approach working with people that want to buy bikes from you?
DL: Well, thanks for noticing that I give a shit. Not to tie it back to music, but when I played in the Shack Shakers, I honestly felt like we were the greatest band in the world. I loved the sound that we created and honed. Everything about it, I just loved it, and so I feel like whenever we played live at a festival or whatever, in those places where people are super critical of the band, time and time again I’d hear, “Best live band I’ve ever seen.”
People would ask how we’d get up there and do that every night and why is it always so good, and I just think that whenever you believe in something —whether it’s your band or a motorcycle you’ve built and you really love it — it’s just genuine and it comes out of your pores, and it’s just irresistible to people because it’s the real thing. So when people come to me about motorcycles or if they visit my shop or come to my auctions on BaT and I get to chat with them on Facetime or have them come to my garage in Charleston, South Carolina, they can vet me, and most times the reaction is, “I’m in.”
It’s the same approach as with the band. When I left the Shack Shakers, people would ask if I was going to play in another band, and I’d say, “Probably not.” It’s because that was the lineup, that was it, and it’s not going to get any better than that. When you have those moments where you think that if you can’t be in something where I’m 100 percent to the bone into it, then I’m just not interested. I think that’s just who I am, and it seems like people have been receptive to that. I try and curate a fun auction, and sometimes the rivet counters try to come in and pick things apart, but I just represent it how it is. People are welcome to come and check it out, ride, and they’ll see that’s that.
I stopped him right there to ask about his cousin having owned a green frame, and he tells me, “My cousin still has the green frame and he bought it brand new.” I just told him, “Take me to your leader, I want it.”
I&A: Obviously, finding these collectible machines has become more and more difficult over the years, and the vast majority of them have been found, bought, and rescued. Yet they’re still sort of out there, waiting. Tell us about how you found this Ducati 750SS.
DL: As psychotic as it seems, just when you think that everything has been put on the internet or made its way out of people’s hands, you find guys that are older and maybe owned these bikes since they were brand new, and they’ve just been mothballed away. So before we get started on the green-frame Ducati, let me just say: Right there is what gets me excited every day — the hunt.
Six years ago I was in Vermont buying a couple of bevel Ducatis from a guy, and I got put in touch with the original owner of one of those bikes. I called him up just to ask a couple questions about the bike and he tells me, “I blew this bike up chasing my cousin around on his green-frame 750SS.” I stopped him right there to ask about his cousin having owned a green-frame, and he tells me, “My cousin still has the green-frame and he bought it brand new.” I just told him, “Take me to your leader, I want it.”
The green-frame is the ultimate bevel Ducati. I’ve seen them at shows and in museums, and it’s a dream bike. I never thought I’d have one. They only made 401 of them; 80 of those came to America, and they’ve all been destroyed from being raced back in the day. They actually weren’t very popular right off the rip, so nobody really cared. So I when asked if he’d connect me to his cousin, he agreed to think about it, and that was that.
About a year later I reached out, checking to see if there was any update on the green-frame. Nothing, radio silence. I just kept on until about six months ago when I decided to go full-court press on getting the bike. I end up sending a text saying, “Hey man, take me to your cousin.” He said it doesn’t work that way, so I responded, “Do I need to PayPal you $500 to take me to the dance? Please just call your cousin and see if it’s OK for me to get his phone number so I can talk to him about the bike.” Literally five minutes later, he sends me the cousin’s name and phone number.
For all these years, I had thought that it was probably bullshit. It’s such a rare bike that the chances of this story being true were pretty slim; I had never seen a photo of it, never heard the cousin’s name, never knew anything. I immediately called the cousin and said, “Before we get started on your Ducati, let me tell you about my six-year relationship with your cousin.” He started laughing, and he said that he thought it was time to sell it. He tells me it’s just one of those things where I’d have to just give him a number. I threw out a solid number, having known what they’re worth, and he knew that it was legit. I’m not here to kick the can on it, but he wanted to check with his wife and call me back. The next day I get the call and he says that his wife is on board with it, but he’s going to check with his son, whom he had promised it to. He was about to leave on a two-week fishing trip with his son and he could talk with him about it and get back to me.
At that point, I stopped him. It had been a long wait and I’ve got sort of a short attention span, so I explained that in 14 days, my offer was off the table. True to his word, 14 days later, he called me back and said, “That number’s not going to do it,” and told me to add $10,000 to my original offer, and I instantly agreed. I wired him the money that day and picked up the Ducati the following week. I honestly couldn’t believe it. It was the longest I had waited to try and buy a bike, and although at this point I knew the bike was real, I honestly didn’t think it was going to happen. It felt like it had just slipped thru the cracks.
I&A: Now that you own the green-frame Ducati 750ss, how do you feel about it?
DL: As far as iconic, cult motorcycles that sort of changed the direction of companies go, the green-frame is definitely in there. The bike had its original fiberglass fairing, tank, and seat, and I was planning to get an aluminum tank so that I could ride the bike; that 40-year-old fiberglass tank isn’t the best idea to put fuel in. I was going to have Evan Wilcox make me an Imola-style aluminum tank for it, and as I started looking at it I decided I’d just have him build me a full kit. Now it’s got alloy everything, front to back, and it’s totally rideable and useable and has really taken on a new dimension with the polished alloy bits versus the painted fiberglass. I do think that in the Ducati world, it has to be the Holy Grail. What else is there that’s better, or more obscure or coveted? I don’t really know, but it’s just got that stance. You just see it and it’s like … It’s hard to explain.
I&A: What sort of work is needed to bring this beast back into top running condition, and do you have any specific plans for what you’re going to do with it?
DL: Crazily enough, the bike didn’t really need that much. I removed the top end, checked the valve clearances, rebuilt the carburetors, changed all the fluids, lubed the chain, and installed new rubber, new cables, and new tires. It’s only got 14,000 original miles on it, so after that service, it fired right up. The crazy thing about Ducatis is that they were really well-built in the ‘70s, and it’s a straightforward system, so that was it. I’ve been riding it around and it’s a weird bike because I know it’s valuable; you tend to be on pins and needles when you’re on it, but at the end of the day, it is just a motorcycle, so you have to stick with it. It’s not for sale. I mean, everything’s for sale, but it’s not for sale, so we’ll see what happens. Maybe we can circle back in a couple of years.
I&A: We talk a lot about old bikes, what they mean to us and what their future could be. With all the options for new bikes and even electric, how do these old machines fit into your life, and what do you think the future is for vintage bikes?
DL: Well, they’ll always be around, and obviously everything is shifting towards electric, which I’m not a fan of, so I personally won’t be riding or buying either an electric bike or car. This won’t be a popular answer, but I’m in favor of gas prices going higher and getting people to ride bicycles and take alternate transport instead of just getting in their gas guzzlers to drive a half-mile to the grocery store. I think that if gas prices were on par with what it is in Europe, people would think about it a bit more and perhaps enjoy getting in their vehicles — that process of thinking that it’s not something that should be taken for granted as some workhorse form of transportation.
I think the vintage motorcycle interest will continue to grow, as I see young guys getting into it. Maybe they see them on Instagram or in movies, and it’s piquing an interest. Maybe they like the design and find them interesting. I see young guys here in Charleston riding, and I think it’ll just keep going as they learn to work on them. It’ll outlive all of us.
I&A: What’s next on the horizon — not just for this bike, but for you and your business?
DL: I’m just going to keep on keeping on. I love what I do, I love restoring and building bikes, and it never gets old. People have been coming to me more recently about having me restore their bikes, so maybe I see it shifting to where I’m doing custom builds and restorations. I really do love the camaraderie and engagement with BaT, so I’m still going to continue to auction my bikes in the years to come. The auction format is just exciting for both sellers and bidders. I’ve been on both sides, but never bought anything on BaT. I’ve tried but I always get out-gunned. But as a seller, it’s very exciting to read the comments, both good and bad. I think I just steady on, keep it rolling as it sits, and stay happy with it.