Interview by Cyril Dunn
Hi Uwe, could you please introduce yourself? Tell us more about Ehinger Kraftrad.
I have been running the company EHINGER KRAFTRAD since 2008 with Katrin Oeding; she is a designer as well as my partner in life and in business. With a manufactory’s standards of technological perfection and creative courage, we develop design concepts together for motorcycles, motorcycle parts and fashion with unique and innovative solutions that are then realized with precision, in the highest quality and with a minimalist design in close collaboration with selected partners. Katrin is the designer. I am the engineer and technical developer. An EHINGER KRAFTRAD product is always accompanied by a little piece of motorcycling history. For more information, please refer to www.ehingerkraftrad.com
Photo © Bernard Testemale
When did you start riding a motorcycle?
I was 6 years old. I was living at my uncle’s hacienda in Argentina at the time and rode his 125 Yamaha. What was your first bike? It was a Kreidler Florett – a real German 50ccm – and I was 15. I got my license early and by the time I was 17, one thing was clear: I wanted a Harley. I got a tip that some old Harley police bikes were being auctioned in Belgium. There was just one catch: you had to be 18 to participate. So I borrowed my brother’s papers, hitchhiked to Belgium and purchased a machine. Then I rode back home across country roads with his driver’s license, which was probably only for mopeds anyway. On a Belgian police motorcycle. I sincerely hope that this falls under the statute of limitations by now. What about Choppers? This seems to be a long love story? It all started when I was 17 and watched the movie “Easy Rider”, which infected me with an incurable fever: the Harley virus. At the time, I was living in Hamburg and studying Particle Physics as well as Mechanical Engineering. But above all, I spent many hours reading about old Harleys. In those days, from the mid to late 1970s, it wasn’t easy to get your hands on specialist motorcycle literature. I managed to procure reading material like the Jammer’s Handbook, Easy Riders or Street Chopper from overseas, and started working on my first machine: a Shovelhead. In 1976/1977, I traveled to L.A. to visit my aunt and met people from the scene for the first time. Does living in Hamburg, Germany, have an influence on your work and inspirations? There is a German style of getting things done. I grew up here and this is where I took my first steps in craftsmanship. I did a three-year apprenticeship at the shipyard Blohm + Voss. The atmosphere was reduced yet concentrated and this style suited my personality. The clear, factual language, color and shapes are similar to my own way of approaching things. How dynamic is the Hamburg custom motorcycle scene? The custom scene in Hamburg is quite small, but there is a huge Harley scene. The Harley Days take place here once a year; it is Europe’s biggest Harley event with 550,000 visitors and bikers.
Photo© Hermann Köpf
What kind of bikes do you work on?
I started a trilogy as homage to three bike sports that have slowly been disappearing over the past years. The Snowracer as my interpretation of a hill climber was the first step. Secondly, I worked on a Bonneville racing machine for high speed racing on salt lakes. And thirdly, a Speedway Knuckle in remembrance of the old racing sports without brakes.
A few months ago, you released the book ‘Rusty Diamonds’…. What is it all about? –
RUSTY DIAMONDS – A Kraftrad Journey by Uwe Ehinger The book “RUSTY DIAMONDS” documents Uwe Ehinger’s archeological motorcycle finds from 1979 to 1989. It is a collection of almost lost motorcycle knowledge and a unique, extremely personal documentation of a true motorcycle enthusiast. Uwe Ehinger was infected with an incurable fever for motorcycles at a young age and his passion for the motorcycle manufacturers of the 1930’s to the 1960’s remains to this day. When he set off on his travels in 1979 at the age of 19, he didn’t bring along much more than an idea and a year’s worth of arduously acquired knowledge about antique racing and sports motorcycles. He travelled from North to South America and from Europe to Asia as an independent dealer of rare motorcycles until 1993. During this time, he hunted down brands like Brough Superior, Norton, Vincent, Indian, Harley Davidson, BMW, etc. He searched for them, dug them out, discovered them, bargained for them, and then sold most of them again.The book “RUSTY DIAMONDS” begins with an elaborate, very personal interview in which Uwe Ehinger describes how it all began, why he became a motorcycle agent and what life was like in South America back in those days. With this coffee table book, the reader can embark on his or her own motorcycle quest through over 250 photographs depicting Uwe Ehinger’s countless trips, arranged chronologically and accompanied by touching stories as well as explanatory texts. All from a time without cash machines, Internet, e-mail or online stores.
The photographs in “RUSTY DIAMONDS” are practically unedited. Each photo was a work tool that Ehinger sent to potential buyers by post. Captured on analog film with various cameras, the photos were developed in supermarkets or small photo shops around the world during his travels and document a bygone era. This book is the result of several months of hard work spent reviewing, selecting images and stories, conducting interviews with Uwe Ehinger – all brought together in an extraordinary book design. Thus, this book is one of those objects made for all eternity with special care and a skilled eye – and therefore a typical EHINGER KRAFTRAD product. How and when did your irretrievable/irreversible quest begin? It began in the middle of the 1970s. What were you looking for at first? Bikes, bikes, bikes. Anything that was tradable. Mainly antique bikes from the very beginning until the 1960s. What process did you develop to succeed in each of your researches/searches? I heard that there were lots of old Harleys in South America, and at the time, the prices for Harleys were rapidly rising over here. That gave me the initial spark. I was already fairly familiar with South America and I had a contact in Chile, a place where even better bikes were supposedly available. I saw it as a great opportunity. I scraped together as much money as possible with the plan of buying whatever I could get my hands on. But before I traveled to South America, I spent many months reading English, American and German books and magazines about old motorcycles in libraries.
Finally, are you a kind of motorcycle archeologist?
Yes, but I was working practically and somehow felt like a part of this past. In other words: I hunted mammoths with the Neanderthals. You must have many recollections, could you share a particularly memorable one with us? There are vibrations that feel a lot like a motorcycle whizzing past at great speed – although they are caused by something completely different. In South America, the cause of such overwhelming vibrations is usually an earthquake. I was in the Chilean holiday paradise of Vina del Mar when someone gave me a tip that there were two old motorcycles for sale nearby. Before I had the chance to take a look at them, the floor of the hotel started to shake as if a herd of buffalos were thundering across the hall above me. The next day, I struggled through the rubble to the address that had been given to me. The house had survived the earthquake and was still intact – and so were the bikes. When I saw what I was dealing with, I started to tremble inside. Full of joy. The first bike was the military-version of an Indian Chief, easily recognizable due to its somewhat simpler leaf spring fork. And that was just the first part of the surprise; the second was a Rudge from the late 1920s. The British motorcycle manufacturer Rudge Whitworth was the first to use four-valve technology and conical combustion chambers as standard. This technological edge proved to be an advantage in both circuit racing and on dirt tracks in those days. Riders like Graham Walker, Ernie Nott and Henry Tyrell-Smith dominated European racing history and enjoyed multiple victories in the Tourist Trophy on the Isle of Man. With their stoic, smooth-running engines, these machines from Coventry still have many fans amongst the riders of the Wall of Death shows. The owner named a price so shockingly low that I almost forgot to bargain with him. How long did your quest last? The quest never really ends. But nowadays, it is totally different due to globalization and not least because of the Internet. How many motorcycles did you find & buy in the end? Thousands. Mainly police bikes from Mexico and South Korea.
What became of the motorcycles that you found?
I sold them to collectors and re-imported masses of these bikes to the U.S. to traders. They, in turn, sold them to various buyers all over the world. I saw some of the motorcycles again in Germany, Japan, Denmark, Belgium and Sweden as Choppers or Bobbers. What was your best bargain? One of my sources told me there was a bike for sale. Once I introduced myself, the man selling it pushed open the door wordlessly. Tall and thin with a heavily tanned face, he led me to the backyard of his house. He had grouped his dusty motorcycles together into an earth-colored heap and slowly pointed at the bike I had come for. But I had already secretly shifted my attention to something that shone out at me from beneath the dust. Even though it was lying on its side, it still looked fast. I bought the bike that I had originally come for and offered to take the rest of the “junk” with me for the price of 100 US dollars. A sacrilege considering the rarity I was dealing with: a Moto Guzzi Giulio Cesare Carcano 500 V8. Very few of these engines were built, and I had found one! What made this Moto Guzzi so special were the 500 cc spread over 8 cylinders. It was a V8 engine that was usually only used in sports cars.Another Italian company named Galbusera had already toyed with the idea in 1938. But in the end, the engine was built by Moto Guzzi in 1955 for its in-house racing team. In those days, the engine caused a sensation. But it failed to be a success on the race circuits. The Argentinian chewed on his cigarette and waved his hand in disdain. He was happy to get rid of this piece of cultural heritage on two wheels because he thought it was just useless junk.
It didn’t take long until I got an offer for the Moto Guzzi that I simply couldn’t refuse. It was a tough decision whether to sell the bike or set it aside. But I was young and to me, the fascination was in the search, not in the ownership. I was confident that there were still plenty of these treasures to be found out there. So I let the Moto Guzzi go. Have you definitely given up this « hobby »? It was never just a hobby. It was my passion and my way of earning money. By the time I stopped travelling around the world and personally hunting for motorcycles myself, it was already over. The big butches had already been traded and the market was grazed bare.
What is your daily riders these days?
A Harley Davidson Flathead and a Triumph Bonneville. Do you have your own private motorcycle collection? And if so, what kind of treasures do you own? I do have a few Knuckleheads, Flatheads and Big Flathead from the 1930s – all originals.
When participating to the Wheels & Waves event, what were you expecting and, finally, what did you find there?
I was expecting to meet people who are truly enthusiastic about motorcycles and ride with a passion. When we got there, we were greeted with a great location for the “Art Ride”, the historic hall with a combination of events comprising motorcycles, fashion, old photographs, illustrations, artistic surfers and skaters. The event location in Biarritz was a special place by the sea with a lot of promise and a second great location at a lighthouse.
Any surprises at the event?
In the past, the people who were most interested in all kinds of motorcycles and riding were older. Now there is a new generation with their own spirit and a lot of passion for good bikes. The name “Art Ride” expresses it perfectly. It conveys a mixture of lifestyle, art, fashion and music but also respect for craftsmanship and engineering, complemented by surfing and skating. How do you forecast the future of the motorcycle scene? Nobody knows. I think it will be: sensible, not banal, not excessively commercialized, and definitely substantial. I heard that you have a project with “Gestalten”… What is it about? We were already involved in “The ride” and there is a new project coming up focusing on craftsmanship. We are a part of it and are really looking forward to this project.