Douglas 90 Plus inside Pandora’s freight container
Each year, the corporate offices of Smith Inc. relocate temporarily to an executive retreat at a secret offshore location. This provides an opportunity to scout around for interesting vintage motorcycles—and this year’s excursion bore particularly interesting fruit.
The story actually began a year ago. I had been trying to locate a gent called Thom Search who owns a particularly tasty home-built special (a Triumph Trident engine in a Norton featherbed frame). None of my local contacts could provide insight, but the consensus was that if anyone knew of Thom or his whereabouts, it would be Noah at Hot Rod Alley in Wailuku. Noah made a few calls on my behalf, but it seemed as though Thom has gone off the grid, possibly relocated to Kaua’i.
“But if you’re interested in old bikes,” says Noah, “You need to talk to Chip” referring to a man who had moved to Hawaii from New York five years ago, bringing with him a freight container full of goodies.
I took Noah’s counsel and on the last day of my 2006 visit, Chip opened the container door for me to peer inside. Though it was difficult to see past the 1952 Volkswagen parked just inside, there was just enough visibility to make out something special: a flat Twin British bike with a gold-painted gas tank.
So this year when I arrived in Maui, one of the first things I do is call Chip. Yes, he’ll give me a tour of the container’s contents; but, no: he isn’t going to pull everything out of the container so I can photograph the bike at the back. Oh well …
Then I get the call. “Sunday,” says Chip. ”I’ve got a couple of friends coming over.”
We meet at Chip’s place at 9:00 a.m. We first clear out a selection of tools and shop equipment, a Suzuki RE-5 and a Honda Dream 50R to access the Volkswagen. Some air in the tires, and we roll the Beetle outside. Behind it is an ex-factory XR750 flat tracker. We roll that out too. Then comes the 1934 Harley VL with sidecar, 1942 Indian 4, a Duo-Glide, another VL from 1930 … and finally: the 1950 Douglas 90-plus.
This particular bike, says Chip, was shown at the 1950 New York motorcycle show as a racer, then sold converted for street use. Chip bought the bike from one Bob Garrity, an old tugboat captain in Cairo, New York. “I’m not making this up!” says Chip. Garrity was at first reluctant to sell the Douglas to Chip and his brother, a couple of (then) bearded, long-haired bikers from NYC. “Why, I’d rather throw it in the Hudson River,” the good captain had allowed. “You’ll have it when I’m gone, maybe.”
The brothers didn’t have to wait long: Garrity keeled over from a heart attack while loading a P&M Panther out of his truck. But following their first visit, Garrity removed the gas tank and handlebars from the Douglas and hid them, in the event Chip returned.
The beneficiary of Garrity’s will was an equally aged woman, supposedly his sweetheart in earlier years, who then lived in New Jersey. Chip got a phone call from her one Sunday afternoon. “She was furious,” says Chip. Apparently, she had contacted a well-known motorcycle collector who demurred on the offer of the Douglas because the gas tank was missing, and also because it was, by then, fitted with lights and a mag-dyno for street use.
Chip was there like a shot. He was able to identify the correct tank from Garrity’s parts pile, and he also knew about a wooden box that contained many of the original racing parts, like the Lucas K2FR magneto, instruments, race-type air scoop for the clutch and racing number plates.
The Douglas motorcycle still wears its street clothes; the headlamp ears complete with British licence holder, and a tail light tacked on to the rear fender. But it does have the correct Dunlop racing tires and trick ventilated cast-alloy front brake. Contemporary Douglas literature has pictures of Chip’s bike with that equipment fitted, and the paperwork he showed me offers pretty good provenance for the bike’s veracity.
We didn’t try to start it; after all, it had been sitting in a freight container for at least five years. But the engine did turn over. And I’m holding out hope that the Douglas motorcycle will one day be reunited with its race kit and run again. Maybe next year.
Douglas 90 Plus – History
The Bristol-based Douglas company was one of Britain’s oldest motorcycle manufacturers, specializing in flat Twin machines with an outside flywheel and cylinders mounted fore-and-aft. Their machines were especially prized in dirt track and speedway for their performance and their low center of gravity.
The post-WWII T35 range announced for 1946 was based on a 350cc OHV flat Twin motor mounted BMW-like across the frame.
It was a sophisticated bike with torsion-bar suspension front and rear; but with limited performance, reliability issues and a high price tag, it never sold well.
Along the way, Douglas produced performance and racing versions of the T35. Engine output was measured on the bench; and if the motor achieved more than 25 hp, it was designated “90-plus” and sold with a certificate attesting that it was capable of more than 90 mph. If the dynamometer revealed less than 25 hp, it became an “80-plus.”
The 1955 Dragonfly with the T35 engine but more conventional cycle parts was Douglas’s last motorcycle, though they continued to build Vespas under licence into the sixties.
by Robert Smith Canadian Biker #239