Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com, a hugely popular website that goes deep into the culture of motorcycling and the people behind the bikes. Part of the Motorcycle Arts Foundation, The Vintagent also produces films and exhibits, and has names like Jay Leno contributing. This is the story behind The Vintagent.
What is The Vintagent?
The Vintagent began as the original old-bike blog in 2006 and grew into a multi-media celebration of motorcycle culture and history. We produce films and stories, curate exhibitions at museums, organize multi-day events like rides and film festivals, and support those who create interesting media content around motorcycles. I partnered with Sasha Tcherevkoff in 2015 to create the non-profit Motorcycle Arts Foundation as an umbrella for all the work we do: we've created three exhibits at the Petersen Museum in LA, organized two editions of Wheels&Waves California, hosted the original Motorcycle Film Festival, and produced over a dozen films so far, with two features in production right now. We tend to cover stories the traditional motorcycle press has ignored.
How did the idea come about?
It started sideways! I'm the son of a fashion designer and love great clothing. In 2006 I was featured on the Sartorialist blog wearing a vintage outfit. Google made it easier to comment on a blog if you had a blog back then, so I chose the name 'The Vintagent' (a 1940s British term for someone into old cars and bikes), and tentatively began posting photos with descriptions in October 2006. It was the first old-bike blog, and garnered a lot of interest immediately, I suppose because I knew my subject well, had a very large library, and had already owned over 200 motorcycles. My bikes tended to be rare, like Brough Superiors, Zeniths, and racing Nortons, Sunbeams, and Velocettes, and I had a reputation for riding hard and for long distances. As an experiment, in 2007 I committed myself to posting new stories on The Vintagent three times per week, which really grew my following - people like regular content. I totally rebooted The Vintagent website in 2016 to include weekly film content and much better graphics and started making short films. We're making our first feature film currently, about racer, surfer, and filmmaker Richard Vincent.
How did your love affair with bikes and bike culture start?
My older brothers rode bikes in the 1970s but scared me to death doing wheelies with me on the back! I bought a small Honda at 15 to take night classes at the local community college, as my home city of Stockton was a very dangerous place. Riding was safer than the bus or a bicycle. I was able to graduate high school a year early because of that bike, for which I was grateful, but I didn't really catch the bug until after university. I was politically active in the punk/anarchist scene, and my friend Jim Gilman set up a printing press set in my mother's San Francisco basement, where we printed posters and books. Jim rode a 1955 BMW R50 he'd found under a staircase and had collected Classic Bike and Classic Motorcycle magazines from issue #1. He was tormented with guilt at the materialistic contradictions of his lust for old bikes, so one day in 1984 simply gave me all his vintage bike magazines, which at the time only filled two milk crates. I devoured those magazines! It was like swallowing a magic pill, and every cell in my body was transformed. I have never stopped buying books or motorcycles since.
Can you tell us about one or two of your favourite stories that you’ve covered?
There are two stories I uncovered that mean a lot to me: Anke-Eve Goldmann and Cliff Vaughs. Anke-Eve broke gender barriers in the early 1950s in Germany, where women were harshly criticized for riding a full-size motorcycle, and rules were written to ban her from racing against men. I was able to identify a group of photos posted online by a mysterious fellow, who uploaded shots with no information. It took a lot of digging, but once I'd found her name, it opened doors. The mystery man was her former husband, who had taken most of the famous photos of his gorgeous wife riding BMWs in her custom-made, one-piece leather racing suits. I interviewed him, and approached her through her daughter, but she was not interested in a biography, so the story sits, for now. My journey with Cliff Vaughs continues, even after his death. I was alerted in 2009 that he was the unknown designer of the Easy Rider choppers and began writing about him that year. We became friends, and I included a longer version of his story in my book 'The Chopper: The Real Story'. Easy Rider was really based on Cliff's life, and many important points in the film actually happened to him, including the final scene (without the death!), which we have documented from 1964.
How has coronavirus affected your riding and storytelling? Is it returning to normal?
It's been very useful to have this down time. All my creative friends are available to make films and tell stories, as their jobs have dried up. Thus, I'm starting to make short films more regularly. The first was about my Honda Scrambler in Baja, which was the bike that forged the way for the Baja 1000 race. I just made a film with a borrowed 1950 Vincent Black Lightning, which was wonderfully loud and sexy. We shot a film at my 'Silver Shotgun' exhibit at the Petersen Museum in LA, during the only week it was open since March.
You’ve got some big names contributing, such as Jay Leno. Can you tell me the story behind his involvement?
I met Jay 30 years ago through his mechanic John Pera, who was in the Velocette Owners Club. John invited me to ride with Jay's gang at his original airplane hangar at Burbank airport. As I don't live in LA, I borrowed my brother's immaculate 1973 Honda CB360, while he rode his Moto Guzzi Ambassador, and his wife rode a new Harley-Davidson. Jay chose a '78 Ducati Mike Hailwood Replica from his collection, and let me tell you, Jay can ride! The Rock Store up Malibu Canyon was our destination, and when we hit the canyon, Jay and I had a proper race through the twisties, while our friends were nowhere. It took everything that little Honda had to pass Jay, shortly before we reached the Store, and when we stopped, he was cracking up - "You literally revved the nuts off that thing!". My turn signals were all dangling by their wires.
What’s your connection with Motul and what do you think of its lubricants?
I am probably the only American journalist to have toured the Motul facility in Paris! In 2010, when I lived in Paris, I was invited on a press tour, and had a lovely lunch afterwards at a Michelin-star restaurant with the executives. The facility is fascinating and seeing the Motul banner at every car and motorcycle event creates loyalty: people are actually grateful for such support, even if they don't show it in obvious ways. They won't wear a Motul tee, for example, but will think twice when buying oil for their car or bike. Motul has a certain cachet of quality, and because they are a small company, their products seem tailored for their purpose.