Marty Dickerson Interview

G.P. Garson
by G.P. Garson

Getting naked gets you noticed. We’ve all seen the iconic image snapped at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah on a Monday Morning, Sept. 13, 1948 where a guy wearing nothing but a Speedo bathing suit and tennis shoes is lying flat out on a Vincent itself going flat out. Rolland “Rollie” Free rode into legend that day on a specially prepared British built 1948 Vincent HRD. His achievement, and perhaps moreover that famous photograph, has left an indelible impression. But looking a bit closer you’ll find a photo also taken at Bonneville of another rider stretched out flat on a Vincent, though not in a bathing suit, himself a motorcycling legend who’s blasted his way to even more records...and is still making them.

We’re speaking of Martin “Marty” Dickerson. Though not prone to wearing Speedos at speed, he’s been inclined to establish and break records for more than half a century. You could say Marty always traveled with a fast crowd, his speed-challenger buddies including both Rollie Free and Burt Munro, the latter now a household name thanks to the 2005 film “World’s Fastest Indian” starring Anthony Hopkins. While Burt passed into the history books in 1978 and Rollie in 1984, Marty, born in Inglewood, CA, on Nov. 3, 1926 and now in his 80s, is still twisting the throttle WFO. While men his age are worried about breaking bones climbing off a Barcalounger, Marty’s still climbing aboard a Vincent and blasting across the Salt Flats at over 150 mph.

It all starts back in Los Angeles circa 1948 when Marty traded in his post-War Triumph Tiger 100 for a Series B Vincent Rapide, the new bike having recently made its debut in the U.S. at Mickey Martin’s bike shop in Burbank.

His beefed-up, twin-carbed Triumph had been no slouch, with Marty clocking 98 mph out at the Rosamond Dry Lake near Willow Springs and home to the famous racetrack. We’re talking the late 1940s when the fastest Trumpets were hitting 104. Marty earned himself a name street racing with his race-prepped Triumph, so obviously he could handle a set of handlebars. But getting on his new Vincent in October 1948 was no easy transition. Marty readily admits there was a learning curve and then some. Apparently the bike had a hair-trigger like clutch and “scary” power. But after negotiating the streets of L.A., Marty got the hang of it and tamed the beast. But he didn’t quite get the hang of paying for what was then a very expensive motorcycle at nearly $1200 back in 1948.

In order to earn the scratch he entered into a deal with Mickey Martin to motor around the country showing off the new Vincent in the hopes of acquiring more customers. While the plan didn’t generate too much business, it did provide Marty with some real-world experience as he found himself racing against numerous local hot-rodders and facing off against both bikes and cars as he traveled/drag raced his blue Vincent all over the West.

In March of 1950 Marty opened his own bike shop in Hawthorne, CA. He would remain open until the last day of 1957. From this HQ he would mount his own speed record campaign that in 1951 brought him the Class C record at 129 mph aboard his Rapide, now taken off the street and purpose built for top-speed assaults. His record stood for less than two weeks when taken by his rival Sam Parriott riding an Ariel Square Four. But after pumping up his Vincent V-Twin with special factory cams and exhaust pipes sent from England by Phil Vincent himself, he returned to the Salts in 1952 and ran 141mph to take the Class C Record. Then in 1953 and broke his own Class C record with an average two-way run of 147 mph. Marty also broke the 150-mph barrier during one of his runs.

His speed record held for an astounding two decades until 1973 when a four-cylinder Yoshimura Z-1 Kawasaki clocked 155. (In 1953 Marty was also roadracing and in that year won the 250cc division racing a Jawa 2-stroke at the famous Catalina Grand Prix. Commenting on that win, Marty laughs and says, “My competition wasn’t very stiff. I had to stop three times to screw the top back on the carburetor and still won the race.”

Translating his experience to the classroom, Marty took on a new role in 1969 when he became a vocational school instructor and for 17 years inspired racing mechanics-to-be, many of whom would become top guns in their profession.

Stepping back into his leathers in 1996 at age 70, Marty set a vintage speed record at 130 mph. In 2002 in recognition of his many achievements and contributions, Dickerson was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. In 2007 Marty returned to Bonneville at nearly 81 years of age, climbed on a 1950 Vincent Rapide and clocked runs of 151.685 mph and 154.567 scorching yet another record into the history books. By the way, Marty’s blue Vincent (along with Rollie Free’s bathing suit) is now in a collection in Austin, Texas owned by Herb Harris.

Speaking with The Man: Marty Dickerson Sets the Records Straight Going back to your speed roots, we hear you worked for the Northrop Aircraft company and took part in building the famous Northrop B-35 Flying Wing. This was 60 years ago and the ancestor of today’s stealth B-2 Bomber. How’d you get that job?

Marty Dickerson: As a teenager during the war I was taking mechanical drafting at Hawthorne High School, and Northrop needed people to lay out templates for the Flying Wing. I graduated a few months early and started working full-time for them in 1944. When I was a kid I saw the prototype in the air, a smaller version of the Flying Wing. I also saw the piston version of the full-size Flying Wing take off and later I saw a fly-over of the jet version. I remember looking and I’m looking and I don’t see a damn thing. All of a sudden there it is, like a ruler in the air. It flew low over the factory in Hawthorne and then dipped one wing and did an absolutely 180-degree turn so quick I couldn’t believe it. Then it took off and headed toward Edwards Air Force Base. Politics killed that airplane. Sixty years later they figured out it was a great design.

MO: What came first, airplanes or motorcycles?

MD: Pretty much both at the same time. I started riding in high school when a friend got a ’25 JD Harley. I started riding behind him and decided I had to get one of my own and so I did, another JD Harley. One day the both of us were riding toward a railroad crossing with this big ramp-like bump and, being teen-agers, we had no fear. We hit it hard and I came off my bike. I remember looking up and seeing the underside of my buddy’s bike going over my head. I guess that was my first and last Evel Knievel jump. (That same friend who got Marty interested in bikes also got him into gymnastics which helped him develop a strong and enduring physique that served him well in the years to follow, especially since Marty’s spine was affected by scoliosis which at times caused him problems. In the 1980s while racing at Daytona he arrived from California after pacing up and down on the floor of an RV for the 2000-plus-mile trip since he was unable to sit or stand or even lie down, so great was his pain. Marty had walked across the United States without sleep. Yet once in Florida he climbed aboard his Vincent and entered the fray and saw it through. He says he felt no pain while he raced, but had to be lifted off his bike at the end of the event.)

“I remember my first reaction when I saw the Vincents. What an ugly piece of crap!”
- Marty Dickerson

MO: What was like when you first saw that Vincent at Mickey Martin’s shop?

MD: As I remember there were three Vincent Rapides in the shop along with the Triumphs he sold. It was a very small shop and I never figured out how Mickey got the Vincent distributorship for the whole of the U.S. west of the Mississippi. That’s why he sent me on that trip to set up dealers. No one signed up. It was just after the war and nobody had any money, especially for such expensive bikes.

But I remember my first reaction when I saw the Vincents. What an ugly piece of crap! It sure as hell wasn’t love at first sight. I hunkered down and looked the bike over. I checked out the engine and all the big cobbly lumps of metal from the sand casting. But all I could think was, “Boy, this thing looks like it’s powerful.” Only problem was I didn’t know how to ride it. Getting it started was a chore. Fortunately a dirt-track rider of the time, Tex Luce, was on hand to give me some pointers. I finally got it started but killed it about six times before I got away from curb at the shop. By the time I got home to Hawthorne from Burbank I knew how to start the goddamn thing and I knew how to start off without killing the engine or leaving a black strip of rubber taking off from stop lights. I couldn’t get over the torque. I’d screw it on and it damn well almost threw me off the seat. By the time I got home I had fallen in love with it. That was a good thing since it was my only transportation at the time. In later years when working on the rear frame member I noticed how the rear section was a work of art with its blending of square and round tubing, an example of Phil Vincent’s design genius.

MO: We know you street-raced your Triumph. Did you do the same with your brand-new Vincent?

MD: Yep. I was dragracing all these stroker Harleys built by this guy Willy Sumpter, a well-known builder at the time. I beat every one of his bikes. We didn’t race for money, only for the fun of it (Marty starts laughing). The only money I ever made racing was $50 in an AMA National Championships at Torrey Pines when I won a Third Place running a Vincent Gray Flash that I bought second-hand in 1952.

MO: Rollie Free, like yourself, had a connection to Mickey Martin’s shop in Burbank, right?

MD: Yeah. After Rollie got out of the service he went to work for Mickey as a mechanic, something a lot of people don’t know. But Rollie was such a perfectionist it took him three days to do a valve job on a Triumph from which he generated $12 in labor. Mickey told him, “Hey, Rollie, we need to make some money to stay in business.” (Rollie moved on and that’s when Tex Luce took over the job at Mickey’s, the fellow who went on to help Marty fire up his first Vincent.)

MO: When did you first go to Bonneville and see Rollie ride his Vincent?

MD: I met Rollie two years after he did the bathing suit run in 1948. That bathing suit bike was a borrowed ride which was a prototype, a hopped-up 1948 Black Shadow with special cams and TT carburetors owned by John Edgar who ordered the bike from Mickey’s. It was in 1950 that I went up to Bonneville to watch Rollie run, but this time on a different Vincent, a Lightning he had ordered for himself. It had special heads and carbs too. I rode my Vincent from Los Angeles to Bonneville. That was a 28-hour ride. There were three of us: another guy on a Vincent and one guy on a Triumph with a little Mustang gas tank. About every 50 miles we had to stop and take gas from our tanks to keep the Triumph running. We didn’t ever have to walk more than 10 feet to find a beer can to use to drain the gas. (Eventually arriving at Bonneville and after seeing Rollie ride, Marty took his Vincent off the street and modified it for Bonneville speed trials, and the rest is history.)

MO: What was that first meeting with Rollie like?

MD: (Marty laughs as he recalls the incident.) He actually came up to me because I had made a comment, one that I was really embarrassed about. There was a big delay between races and I said out loud, “Golly, I came all the way up here to watch Rollie Free run, so when the hell is he going to run? I didn’t know he was standing right next to me. Rollie says, “Well, son, I just have to wait until they tell me I can go.” I was just the new kid on the block. He was about 25 years older than me and one of my heroes.

MO: So how did Rollie’s run go that day?

MD: Well, he was testing this new fairing pod thing that was supposed to help with the wind. It was early in the morning and he hunkered down into the bike wearing a sweatshirt, street clothes, no leathers and takes off. He had no plans on falling down, one never does. I got in a pick-up truck with my camera wanting to get some photos. Way in the distance I saw something fly in the air. At first I thought it was a bird, but it was a hatch that flew off his bike. The airflow was so disruptive that the bike pulled to one side sending it into a horrendous speed wobble. We followed the tracks where Rollie had fought the wobble for over a mile. You could see where the tires had slid sideways. He went down on his side, then it got airborne, did a half roll and fell on its open side, flipped and rolled over. By the time we got to the crash point, Rollie had gotten out of the bike, turned off the fuel and was standing there scratching his head wondering what had happened. The only injury he got was a salt burn on his shoulder where he hit the ground. He crashed at about 134 mph. He had just got into second gear and was set up to go well over 200 mph. That was his first run of the event, but not the last. (Sweet Christmas! Over 134-mph in second gear in 1950! --Ed.)

He couldn’t run the fairing because its hardware got broken, so he asked me to stay over and help remove the fairing because he wanted to go back on the salt. So I stayed. We went back to his motel and worked on the bike, his wife tending to his wound. Then we went down to the garage in town he had rented and we removed the fairing. His hands were rock steady as he worked on the bike. He went back and ran again the next morning and did 156, beating his own previous 150. I was impressed. (Marty and Rollie would remain friends for decades to follow after that record setting day.)

MO: You were also chasing the wind with Burt Munro of “World’s Fastest Indian” fame. How did you guys meet up?

MD. That was in 1956. The Germans had brought their NSU bikes to Bonneville and were looking to set the world on fire. They had their fully enclosed dolphin streamliner that went 210 and their “flying hammock”125 two-stroke that ran 151. Burt Munro came all the way from New Zealand just to see them run and didn’t bring a bike of his own. He’d travel pretty far to do what he wanted. Once he went to Belgium just to buy a set of spokes. A good excuse to go somewhere.

I was at Bonneville with my lady friend at the time and was wearing a Vincent shirt, so Burt put two and two together and introduced himself asking if I was Marty Dickerson. He went on to tell me he was on a boat in Hawaii on his way from New Zealand when he read about the NSU event at Bonneville, so he bought an airplane ticket to San Francisco, California, then a bus ticket to Bonneville at which point he was out of money. He bummed a ride with me back to L.A. sitting in the back of my pick-up truck with all our gear. I remember him sitting on a box and singing and looking at the countryside and just having a helluva good time.

He came back to my shop with me in Hawthorne, and every year after that he’d stop first in Hawthorne before going onto Bonneville. The next year he showed up with an old Plymouth coupe he paid $28 for. He had read in the paper that the X-15 rocket plane was going to take off and he just had to see that. He drove up there and saw this big sign that said “Welcome to Edwards Air Force Base” so he just drove on in. He didn’t read the smaller print saying no cameras or photography allowed. He drove down the runway and parked where airplanes were taking off, sits in the boot of his car and starts snapping pictures. The MPs show up and asked what he was doing. Burt opens his mouth. They hear an accent and think, “Hey, we got a spy.” They nailed him and took him to into custody. When Burt got in trouble he just kept talking until people got flabbergasted and gave up.

In the movie they show him in the immigration office, but it really happened in the base commander’s office. He was asked why he’s there and Burt says he wanted to watch the X-15 fly. Why, they ask again. He says, well I’ve always been interested in speed and that’s the fastest man made thing a human being has ever been in. He starts telling him about his Indian and the Commander says, “Wait, you wouldn’t be Burt Munro, would you?” I was just reading an article about you in Popular Mechanics magazine. So what happens? Burt gets to sit in the cockpit of the X-15. And a personal invite to be the guest of the base commander when the X-15 flew. Only Burt could have made that happen.

MO: What did you think of the movie?

MD: When I first saw it, I thought, “Christ that didn’t happen. He didn’t come over on the boat as a cook. Then I got a video of the movie from the film’s maker Roger Donaldson and looked at and looked at it. Then I realized this guy had to put 11 years of Burt’s life into a two-hour movie and make a story out of it. Roger called me and asked me what I thought. I said, “Roger, well, this didn’t happen then or that didn’t happen.” I could tell he was thinking he messed up, then I said, “Roger, you did a brilliant job. You got the characters right and Anthony Hopkins was the best possible guy you could have gotten for the job.” I asked him how did he talk him into it? He said, “I just sent him the script.” (Note: The filmmaker was able to use the tape recordings and photos Marty had made over the years of Burt to add authenticity to Hopkins’s portrayal. That included a recording when Burt made a presentation during one of Marty’s mechanic school classes.)

MO: How about the actor Walter Goggins portrayal of you in the movie?

MD: Well, the personality wasn’t too close, but the appearance was pretty phenomenal. I looked at picture taken back then and realized, “Christ, I look exactly like Walter Goggins.”

MO: Why was your Vincent blue?

MD: In the past, journalists haven’t got this part right, saying I bought it from the factory in that color. The real story is that blue was my favorite color. I made up the paint myself starting out with a General Motors Chevy color, a dark metallic lacquer, and sprayed it myself.

MO: In 1996, at age 70, you climbed on your original blue Vincent and went very fast at Bonneville again? How was that?

MD: Well, not very fast. 130. And it was for a vintage record.

MO: Okay, not that fast. Just last year, 2007, two months shy of 81, you went a bit faster.

MD: This was a 1950 Rapide owned by Steve Hamel from Wisconsin who had set a record of 155. He let me ride it and I ran a two-way average of 151.685 and a 154.456 on the return run.

MO: Did you practice for that ride? And what did it feel like?

MD: No practice. I just got on it and did it. It fit me just right. It felt, well, like a fast ride. It wasn’t for any record, just for fun. (That wasn’t Marty’s fastest. In 1955, on a supercharged Vincent Lightning, he clocked a two-way average of 177 mph with one run of 182 mph, the fastest ever turned by an open-wheeled motorcycle at that time.)

MO: Are you still riding?

MD: I have a few bikes and now I’m riding Ducatis. And, yes, they’re blue. I have a 900 Monster and a 650 Cagiva Allazura with the Ducati Pantah engine that I rode to Alaska and back in 1998. I went up there for the Vincent rally in Northern California, then on to a rally in British Columbia and then up to the Yukon. Meanwhile I’ve been living here in Creston (California) since 1992 and never cover the same road twice and rarely see an automobile. I’m on the top of a mountain looking down at the world and the green hills. It’s a piece of heaven. (At the time of this interview, Marty was getting ready to do the Death Valley ride and also the North American Vincent Club Rally in Idaho Springs, CO, a week before going to the BUB motorcycle-only speed runs event at Bonneville.)

MO: Last question. You’ve mentioned about developing a rhythm with a bike? Tell us about that.

MD: It’s something that comes naturally. I’ve had a lot of people who have ridden behind me on rides who say I look so smooth. Well, maybe it’s because I feel I’m part of the bike. It’s a mechanical thing but you’re combined as one entity. I guess you could say it’s a kind of Zen thing.

Bottom Line: While Marty Dickerson may do his meditating at 150-plus-mph aboard a Vincent soaring across Bonneville, he’s definitely one of the “master painters” in the Art of Motorcycling, by word and by deed. Thanks, Marty, for making the world a much more interesting place.

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