Motorcycles have fascinated Jack Benson since he was a teenager in the early 1960s. Back then, his dad hated motorcycles because he had a friend who was killed on one, so Benson had to sneak out of the house to ride because bikes were off limits.
By TOM STRONGMAN
Benson and his dad shared an interest in antique cars, and they restored a Model A Ford sedan that Benson drove to high school and still owns. Motorcycles, however, were always Benson’s passion and still are. The older and more unusual, the better.
Benson, of Leawood, has numerous bike projects stored in several locations, awaiting his attention. Once he retired from Hallmark he planned to turn his attention to his bikes, but retirement has been so busy that it has been hard to find enough time.
To Benson, the story behind a vintage motorcycle is almost more important than the bike itself. That’s one reason why he likes his Harley-Davidson XR1000 with a Mert Lawwill frame. Lawwill was a professional motorcycle racer whose skill on dirt tracks included 17 national championship wins in TT and flat-track, many as a Harley-Davidson team rider. He won the Number 1 plate as National Champion in 1970. Lawwill is also known for his role in the iconic motorcycle movie, “On Any Sunday.”
Lawwill developed considerable expertise as a frame designer. In 1977, he borrowed one of his custom frames from Richy Noberini in Brooklyn, installed a Harley-Davidson XR750 racing engine and set the fastest time in qualifying for the famous San Jose Mile at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds dirt oval. San Jose was one of the most famous and demanding dirt tracks in the country.
After the race, Lawwill returned the frame to Noberini with a letter that said, “Thank you for letting me use your frame for San Jose. It set the fastest time which was a new track record but I am not used to racing yet and had a bad start and got so tired in the semi that I could hardly finish.”
After San Jose, Noberini put a 101-horsepower Harley XR1000 engine into the frame. Each XR1000 engine had special heads that were finished in Jerry Branch’s shop in California and left-side exhaust pipes that ended in muffled megaphones. It was a race engine tamed for the street.
Benson bought Noberini’s bike, known as Halloween II, from his estate about two years ago. He also owns another Noberini XR1000, Halloween III, but it has a production frame.
After retiring from motorcycle racing, Lawwill turned his frame-building experience to mountain bikes, designing a revolutionary rear suspension system. He also invented a prosthetic device that bolts onto handlebars, enabling amputees to ride a motorcycle or bicycle.
Tom Strongman’s e-mail is email@example.com.