The Motorcycle Shop as it Used to Be
Not long ago, Santa Cruz County was the perfect place for a weekend shop crawl. You could find every major brand within a few salty blocks of the ocean: Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Harley-Davidson, BMW, Yamaha, and Hinckley Triumph. There were multiple incarnations of Ducati and Moto Guzzi dealers, for the discerning Italophile. You could even find a full set of gaskets or a Lucas wiring harness to patch up your weepy, flickering Meriden Triumph.
But where are they now? Gone, like points and condensers â€“ victims of the Great Recession, a fickle market, and more than a few bad decisions.
Through it all, one shop has remained, ticking over like that old two-stroke in your garage: Moore & Sons Motorcycles has been plying its trade one short block from the beach since 1964, selling KTMs, Husqvarnas, and â€“ through the years â€“ just about every venerable bike brand you could hope to see in that dirt lot near your house in 1972.
To visit Mooreâ€™s is to take a journey through history. Everywhere you look, there is the well-worn evidence of 51 years of selling dirt bikes. In one corner, there are gas tanks stacked like cordwood: Maico, Penton, Bultaco, Montesa, Ossa. An ancient kidsâ€™ Montesa trials bike hangs from the ceiling. Faded, dog-eared photos wallpaper the office, of races won and lost. Out back, in a storage container, shelves spill over with Bultaco fork legs, Maico cases, and the gearbox remnants of a thousand missed shifts.
John Mooreâ€™s tiny, somewhat scruffy shop is a paean to another age, when you could rattle your blue-smoke dream down East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz and turn not one head. An age of three inches of suspension travel, anemic drum brakes, Steve McQueen, open land, and uncomplaining neighbors. It was a time when you could roost your way up the main fire road in what is now a State Park. After all, who would stop you? No one, thatâ€™s who. To visit Moore & Sons is to miss all those things. And to love them.
This is no espresso-serving shop with MotoGP on the big screen and a posh waiting room with the latest moto mags on a chrome table. At Moore & Sons, there are scandalous comics tacked to the wall. The words, â€œyou could eat off the floorâ€ have never been uttered in this place, and never will be. The bathroom may not be something you would recommend to your mother.
The venerable John Moore, 75, is the occasionally taciturn commander of this leaky but stout vessel. His customers love him, and may even worship him â€“ when they are not frightened by him. If you go, watch out: he bites.
Welcome to Mooreâ€™s: it may not be pretty. But itâ€™s the real deal.
Despite the low-brow appearances, Moore & Sons has been the leading KTM dealer in North America on multiple occasions. And itâ€™s certainly the oldest, if you count the years Moore sold Pentons (the previous incarnation of KTM).
Mooreâ€™s sold thousands of dirt bikes. Thatâ€™s a lot of joy, premix, and broken collarbones. And Moore shows no signs of slowing down. He still rides, albeit a bit slower, every weekend.
Moore knows the dirt under his scruffy shop is worth millions. After all, heâ€™s just a block from one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (Twin Lakes, near the Santa Cruz Harbor). Most people would die for just one of his five-minute test rides. Itâ€™s gorgeous, even if the shop is not.
Time was, a gas island and two pumps sat out front, operated by Mooreâ€™s father. In those days Studebakers and BSAs would stop in for a fillup, where lowriders and bearded hipsters on fixie bicycles now pass in a steady procession of strenuously achieved coolness.
Youâ€™ve got to be good at something to be around that long. And he is.
â€œIâ€™ve got a trophy at home that says Iâ€™m the longest-standing dealer in North America for KTM,â€ says Moore. â€œAnd Iâ€™m probably the longest Husky dealer too â€“ I started selling them in â€™66.â€ In fact, only one guy comes close to the latter record: Malcolm Smith, of â€œOn Any Sundayâ€ fame. The two have raced each other.
In an era of thoroughly sanitized shops, KTM has probably wished Moore would quietly go away â€“ or maybe add that espresso machine. Or perhaps just get rid of some of the piles out back? Of course, he wonâ€™t do any of those things. And why should he? It goes against everything he believes in. And besides, as KTM flourishes, so does Moore. The bikes roll out the door in a steady procession, defying every marketing principle you can think of. No website. A token Facebook page. If he had a Twitter feed, it would probably just tell you to go jump. Heâ€™s doing just fine, thank you very much.
Moore & Sons mechanic Tom Dillenbeck â€“ a local legend in his own right â€“ has worked in just about every shop in the county. Every so often, he counsels Moore on how they used to do things at All-American Honda, or Plamâ€™s BMW, or one of the other half dozen shops where heâ€™s turned a wrench.
Moore considers the point, then says simply: â€œYeah? And where are they now?â€
Heâ€™s got a point. Those shops are gone, every one of them. These days, itâ€™s only Moore, in all his raw, unsanitized glory.
Mooreâ€™s wife, Judy, oversees the books from a tiny hobbit hole midway between the parts counter and Dillenbeckâ€™s workstand. After 52 years of marriage, she, above all others, knows how to handle Mooreâ€™s indiscretions and occasional tantrums. Out front, overseeing the parts counter, is Johnny â€œJunior,â€ the mountain bike-riding son, making it three generations of Moores on the property. Fully half of the building is occupied by Moore & Sons Outboard Motors, run by Johnâ€™s brother, Jimmy.
Itâ€™s a family affair, and like all such operations, it is an exquisitely refined catastrophe. They clearly love each other. And to express it, they fight. â€œI hate boats,â€ says John of brother Jimmyâ€™s operation. â€œWe sort of fight for every little piece of property.â€
The son, John Junior, is not hampered by the square footage. At the end of each day he brings in all the bikes from the parking lot out front and fits them in the tiny showroom like the Rubikâ€™s Cube of your dreams: end-to-end, sideways, whatever â€“ as many as 17 of them, plus minibikes and KTM bicycles. Itâ€™s a wonder to behold.
Out back is a kind of Moore & Sons menagerie. There is an African desert tortoise named Harley, who is 40 years old and weighs 127 pounds. There is also a 95-year-old California desert tortoise. There used to be a pig. These are just not things you would find at your average motorcycle shop.
Dillenbeck has been Mooreâ€™s sole mechanic for 15 years, and the two are engaged in a beautiful, if occasionally antagonistic, dance. â€œAs long as he gets his way, things are great,â€ Moore says of Dillenbeck. â€œHeâ€™s just like my wife. I canâ€™t figure out whoâ€™s most stubborn, my wife, or Tom. Itâ€™s really close.â€
â€œWho loves you, baby?â€ Dillenbeck taunts from the back of the shop. Heck, you could make a sitcom in there. The banter is that good.
And the whole lot of them are local celebrities. As we talk, a jacked pickup truck goes by, and someone leans out the window, bellowing in Dillenbeckâ€™s general direction. â€œHey Tom!â€ Dillenbeck shrugs it off. This kind of thing happens all day long. Welcome to life in the epicenter of Santa Cruz motorcycling. Itâ€™s tough being this popular.
â€œMy Dad had been an auto mechanic his whole life,â€ says Moore. â€œHe started a Union 76 gas station on this spot in 1960.â€ But selling gas, says Moore with characteristic frankness, â€œwas a pain in the ass.â€ Meanwhile, when Moore was 21, he bought a Honda Scrambler. Then a Greeves. And he started riding. A lot.
It was a life filled with the joys of unfettered motorcycle riding. This was not an age of driving four hours to find the legal OHV park and ensure that the stickers are correctly affixed to the left fork tube. No. This was a different time. â€œEvery weekend Iâ€™d either go to a hillclimb or scrambles, starting in â€™66,â€ he says. â€œSometimes weâ€™d ride all the way to Uvas, race at the dam, get gas, and come home. Iâ€™d be on a Montesa, with the â€˜horn of plentyâ€™ â€“ an open silencer that spit flames out the back. And Iâ€™d come home with a trophy now and then.â€
He decided to make it a business. â€œIn December â€™64 I went to the county bank and they gave me enough money to buy three Montesas. I sold all three in two weeks. And all three seized up, tighter than a drum.â€
Undeterred, he started selling Husqvarnas in â€™66, having purchased them from the legendary Edison Dye, known as the â€œfather of motocrossâ€ in the U.S. The rest came with an air of inevitability: Moore started selling Pentons, then Ossas, then Bultacos, and just about every famous two-stroke you could slap an expansion chamber on. By then, the gas station was long gone.
â€œI was a one-man show,â€ he reflects. â€œIâ€™d sell the bikes and fix them. I was self-taught. Iâ€™d get a motor to rebuild, and just take the phone off the hook until I got it done.â€
His timing was impeccable. In the â€™70s, dirt bikes were a juggernaut of profit and popularity. When the movie â€œOn Any Sunday,â€ came out in â€™71, â€œit played in a theater in downtown Santa Cruz,â€ says Moore. â€œI put a Husky in the lobby, and sold three the next day.â€
Indeed, for the next dozen years, the bikes practically sold themselves.
As weâ€™re talking, just for grins, Moore fires up a 155-pound Beta trials bike with one soft kick, and proceeds to do a few improbable things in the shop-cum-dump that comprises the back of his property. He executes a tight turn toward the bathroom without a dab, banks off some metal debris, then rides straight into a cement wall â€“ gently, of course â€“ and bounces off, using the front suspension to ricochet in a new direction, all without putting a foot down. â€œIâ€™m a little rusty,â€ he says. Maybe so, but half of the riding world couldnâ€™t do what this 75-year-old just did. It just comes natural to the guy.
Time has not slowed the venerable Moore down one bit. He rides off-road nearly every weekend. He rides dual sport, and enduros, and pretty much every piece of unpaved landscape from Santa Cruz to the Sierras. He plays squash. He goes pretty good, for an old guy. He competes in the Geritol Trophy â€“ a trials competition that combines the age of the bike and rider â€“ and usually wins. As always, heâ€™s most passionate about trials: plodding, featherweight bikes that you grandmother could load into a trailer. But Moore is no hop around guy: heâ€™s old school, where you actually ride over stuff without stopping.
Customers these days are different, says Moore, reflecting on his five decades of selling motorcycles. â€œThey used to be carpenters, plumbers, and truck drivers. Now, itâ€™s harder to be a poor guy and ride a motorcycle. And kids these days have more distractions. Back in the old days, on every corner youâ€™d see a kid on a 50.â€
And if thereâ€™s one thing Moore hates, itâ€™s â€œcomputerized shit.â€ Black boxes. Laptops on the workbench. Fuel injection, for all its advantages, is nice. But carburetors, for all their imprecision, are things of beauty, requiring the dark art of jets, slides, and float levels.
And then thereâ€™s online shoppers, always in search of the lowball deal. â€œEveryone discounts stuff,â€ Moore laments. â€œIt gets pretty cutthroat.â€
Itâ€™s enough to really piss a guy off. But Moore has seen it all, and he doesnâ€™t get pissed off often. Heâ€™s too old for that. Heâ€™s had too good a life for that. And after all, heâ€™s still riding, and wrenching, the lord of his sacred and scruffy kingdom on the oceanâ€™s edge in Santa Cruz. Things could be worse. Much worse.
â€œYou couldnâ€™t start a KTM shop doing what I do now,â€ says Moore, reflecting on his remarkable journey in two wheels. â€œThey want a showroom. They try to influence me, but I give it right back.
â€œTheyâ€™d have a hard time getting rid of me now.â€
If I were â€œthem,â€ I wouldnâ€™t even try.