Only true love can fuel the hard work that awaits you.
You think you have a lot of motorcycle, car and boat stuff in your garage? No, you don’t.
That’s what Nils and Jahn Ehlers will tell you, anyway. Their father, “Mean” Marshall Ehlers, recently passed away, and they’re finding out what it’s like to suddenly get a lot of stuff. How much stuff?
“Half a city block” is the short answer they’ll give you, as they stand inside the 12,000-square foot warehouse owned by their dad for almost 30 years. It’s just part of Mean’s empire, a piece of property buried deep in the last six industrial blocks of West Oakland that consists of warehouses, shacks, shipping containers, cars, boats and other large objects that you could probably see from space.
The senior Ehlers moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, no doubt drawn by the politics, food, culture, and awe-inspiring motorcycling opportunities. A child of the ’60s, Marshall made no bones about the partying and drug use that accompanied the motorcycle scene in the ’70s. He didn’t just absorb the madcap fun of the times, he helped create it.
“It started one evening in 1975,” wrote Ehlers in 2011 about starting San Francisco’s famous Easter Ride, a tradition that continues to this day. “Start with motorcycles, add a few drinks (or a lot), toss in the available drugs and close all of the bars in the East Bay. Now where do we go? What do we do? We know we’re not ready for sleep and can’t leave one another’s company, yet. There’s got to be somewhere to go or something we can do to keep this going.”
That something has seen as many as 500 motorcycles roaring up Mount Tam at 5am Easter morning, yet another thing that makes the Bay Area motorcycle scene so unique.
Mean worked as a painter and other jobs, but motorcycles, especially old British ones, were his passion. When Triumph shut down in 1982, Marshall opened Mean Marshall’s motorcycles on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley to fix his beloved rides when factory support abruptly disappeared. Over the years, Marshall used his connections in the Brit-bike community to acquire and expand his inventory, collecting hundreds of thousands of parts from Johnson Motors (the Triumph distributor that shut down in ’82) and 10 other shops. In 2011, Mean told me he had enough NOS parts to assemble 300 complete bikes.
“He inventoried everything himself, it was in his head,” recounts Marshall’s younger son, Nils Ehlers. “He could look at a part and give you a part number – it could be a spacer, a washer, whatever.” His customers loved him. ‘Mean’ was an ironic moniker, as Marshall was anything but, and his busy little shop built a reputation for good work and parts availability.
Still, if you’ve ever had the bittersweet experience of working in the motorcycle industry, you’ll know that it’s tough to make a solid, secure living, and by 1998 Marshall closed the moto shop to focus on his far more lucrative love: dismantling and fixing Mercedes-Benz cars and limousines. By then, Mean had purchased a full city block of West Oakland, a desolate, dangerous and dirty place in the 1990s, an abandoned tractor-trailer factory that would be perfect for all of Mean’s projects.
One day around 1991, Mean got a call from his friend Bud Ekins, the legendary stuntman, restorer and friend of Steve McQueen. “Marshall!” yelled Bud into the phone from his North Hollywood shop, “Go empty your bank account.”
“Why?” Marshall yelled back.
“Because you’re coming down here and buying my bikes!” Ekins needed some fast cash, so Marshall bought a lot of about 30 bikes for a bargain price. They were probably all interesting, but Marshall had plenty on his plate at the time, so he parked them in warehouse, a future font of projects, parts or quick cash.
Every so often, a customer would look at one of the bikes, a badly painted 1949 Triumph Trophy, and say, “Hey! That looks like the bike Fonzie rode in Happy Days!” It did, but it had different handlebars, so Mean shrugged it off.
Then, one day in 2000, Cycle World editor Wendy Black called him up and told him that the Trophy was, indeed, one of three bikes used as props (Henry Winkler, who played the iconic motorcycling character, was deathly afraid of riding) in the hit show. When his century-old shop building needed a new roof in 2011, Marshall decided it was time to cash out. The bike went to Bonham’s, and Mean’s empire could keep operating, at least for a little while longer.
Nils and Jahn told me that’s how he did things, keeping rare boats (he loved old Chris Crafts and other wooden boats), Mercedes and more than 100 rare British bikes, selling off a prized jewel every so often to keep things going. “It was his retirement plan.”
Marshall was a tireless do-it-yourselfer, perhaps to a fault. The 12,000 square foot warehouse, with 30-foot ceilings, needed a roof, but he hated to pay others to do something he could figure out. He hired roofers, watched them do about a quarter of the job, and then sent them packing.
“He went, bought the equipment, then did the rest himself,” recalled Nils. That may have been his downfall. With just him and his sons doing the work a crew of six would normally do, the chain-smoking elder Ehlers very possibly worked himself to death. At 65 years of age, he was breathing toxic tar fumes and balancing himself on precarious ladders, slaving away in the baking East Bay sun. The boys knew there was no point in talking him out of it.
“Nobody could tell him what to do or how to do it, and the moment you tried you were going to lose.”
They mostly finished, but decades of smoking and breathing other toxic fumes from his various professions and passions had done their cruel work. Mean developed COPD, a respiratory illness, and of course ducked treatment as long as he could. Even in his last days in the hospital, hooked up to IVs and ordered to bed rest, he would pull out the tubes and try to get away, saying, “I gotta get back to work!” He passed on May 1, 2017.
He left some huge shoes for his 19 (Nils) and 22-year old (Jahn) sons, but they seem to possess the same can-do attitude of their old man. The estate is worth many millions of dollars, not just in rare merchandise, but also in the half-block of land in one of the hottest markets in the country. But they’re not interested in selling.
“This was our playground [growing up]” says Nils. “We fell in love with this place. We’re going to keep building, keep renovating.” They will focus on Silver Star motors, the Mercedes business, but plan on someday reopening Mean Marshall’s, as they both love riding and fixing Triumphs as much as their dad.
His legacy is in good hands, but I’ll miss Mean. He always had time to chat, loved motorcycles, and made an impact on many people’s lives. I can’t imagine how much Jahn and Nils will miss him.
“Some days are harder than others,” Jahn told me. “We expect to see him every day, with his coffee cup and cigarette.”
I know they’ll do great things with the shop, but it’s an uncertain business and the vintage motorcycle scene gets smaller every year. Still, I know that Mean will be with us as long as there are people in the Bay Area riding, creating adventures and stories, stories Marshall would love to hear.
Gabe Ets-Hokin is a famed Irish poet and playwright, known for writing the play O’Flanagan’s Extra-Sad Funeral and the book of poems titled Tragic Sadnesses Troubles. He lives in Dublin with his Irish setter, Cassandra, who is afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder.