Thom McIlhattan has always liked the best German beer and antique motorcycles. Perhaps not good combined, but separate? Life doesn’t get much better.
While the adult beverage menu at the Richmond Art Center’s latest exhibit, “Countersteer,” is unknown, curators Danny Aarons and Phil Linhares have a lineup of stellar vintage motorcycles that include two of the retired Vallejo Harley-Davidson dealer’s collection: A rare 1909 bike and a 1954 Sportster K model.
The exhibit features 12 unique motorcycles, with the program running Tuesday through Nov. 22. A Curators’ Talk & Walkthough is Sat, Sept. 21, 11 a.m.
“I’m looking forward to it,” McIlhattan said.
“I don’t know how much time I want to spend down there. Do I like standing around talking about motorcycles? Well, yes,” McIlhattan said.
It’s been three years since McIlhattan and his wife, Honore, parted with their 17-year dealership in downtown Vallejo, a former Greyhound bus depot.
“People said ‘It’s sad to see you go’ or ‘It’s about time,’” remembered Thom, 72 when he called it quits as he closes in on 75.
“Our best year was probably the last,” he continued. “It kept getting stronger and stronger. We looked at it and said, ‘You know, this is probably the best time to get out.’”
McIlhattan reminisced about his passion earlier this week, sitting for an hour in a side room a few feet from his impressive collection — basically, a non-public museum — that includes a Harley-Davidson CD jukebox and Harley-Davidson simulator motorcycle.
It was the Harley logo that inadvertently opened the door to owning a dealership, McIlhattan said. He was living in Sacramento when a roommate recognized the popularity of Harley-Davidson.
“At that point, Harley had not trademarked their name or their logo,” McIlhattan said.
So he and his roommate started ironing the H-D logo “on everything,” McIlhattan said. “And they sold like hotcakes. It was a stunning piece of business.”
Eventually, Harley-Davidson headquarters got word of this logo exploitation and flew the McIlhattans to Milwaukee.
“They decided the best thing they could do with me is offer me a dealership,” McIlhattan said.
Basically, McIlhattan said, it was “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
“Totally true story,” he said.
Though McIlhattan always had an interest in motorcycles, it wasn’t exactly his destiny … at least early. While his military family lived in Munich, McIlhattan was sent to work summers at a Wisconsin farm near Madison with his aunt and uncle.
Though McIlhattan appreciated the fresh milk — nothing like “the white stuff you buy in cartons” — the farm experience “was enough to know I didn’t want to do that” for a living, he said.
Returning to Munich, McIlhattan couldn’t help but become enamored with motorcycles, “the primary source of transportation” and, well, a girl magnet at the time.
“It was very nice,” he smiled. “I never went back to the dairy farm.”
Though McIlhattan said he doesn’t remember “waking up one day thinking, ‘Oh my God .. motorcycles!’ he does remember “I loved them and always thought of how I could ride one, borrow one or get one. It was always motorcycles. I wasn’t into the car culture.”
His first motorcycle: A Hordx 500 Single.
“Impossible to start,” McIlhattan said. “I did get pretty good at getting that puppy fired. It was my only form of transportation.”
Still, actually owning a motorcycle business was never on his mind while living in Munich, said McIlhattan, a one-time bowling alley pin-setter and pretty fair bowler carrying around a 200 average.
“My glory days were some time ago,” he said. “Now I have all these replacement parts.”
McIlhattan said he never had more than one — maybe two — motorcycles for his pleasure riding. However, he kept running into vintage bikes he just had to have, starting while he and Honore ran the downtown dealership.
Along the way, Thom saw the transition of motorcycle clientele.
“I think it was really a gradual thing. More and more, you’d see that people who were not ‘riff-raff’ riding around on the Harleys,” he said. “I think it had a lot to do with Harley never backing off from charging a lot for motorcycles.”
Rarely, if ever, did McIlhattan loathe working with his staff of almost 50, the patrons or the business.
“I did something I really loved,” he said. “It wasn’t like getting up and thinking, ‘I have to go make hot dogs.’ I got to do motorcycles. That was totally the best.”
Though McIlhattan’s disciplinarian father — think George S. Scott in “The Great Santini,” he said — died at 63 after years of smoking (motivating Thom to quit cold turkey) — McIlhattan said his dad would have endorsed his antique motorcycle collection.
“I hope he’d be happy for me,” McIlhattan said.
There are three McIlhattan brothers, with one still riding his Honda Gold Wing and the other up in Oregon who isn’t a motorcycle guy.
“Two out of three ain’t bad,” Thom smiled.
And if his wife wasn’t into motorcycles or didn’t approve of them?
“Well, we wouldn’t be married,” McIlhattan said. “It’s a pretty essential part of my life.”
The Richmond Art Center presents “Countersteer: Custom Motorcycles as Self-Portraits,” Sept. 10-Nov. 22, 2540 Barrett Ave., Richmond. For more, visit RichmondArtCenter.org or call (510) 620-6772.