Jack Lilly's 1939 Crocker

Paul Garson
by Paul Garson

Working from a cramped shop in Venice, California, Albert “Al” Crocker hand built his first V-Twin motorcycle bearing his name in 1936, three years prior to the outbreak of WWII. By the end of the war in 1945, the Crocker itself had become a casualty and for the most part faded into the history books. Only recently has it been rediscovered, skyrocketing to public consciousness due to the extraordinary nature of the motorcycle and the ensuing collector interest generated when these rare performance machines have resurfaced.

Having joined Indian in 1909, Al Crocker - credited for pioneering that company’s overhead valve racing efforts - became a Los Angeles Indian distributor in 1928. Then at age 53 he set out to design and build his own motorcycles, doing so one cylinder at a time, his one-lung short-track speedway race bikes (some 30-32 built) scoring well in competition.

But it was his V-Twins referred to as “two-wheeled Duesenbergs” that would carve his niche into fame and fortune, though not his own. Totally unrelated in design from his single-cylinder engines, the Twins embodied a unique vision when first launched in 1936. Using aluminum components and powerful engines, they literally outclassed the competition, however, in very limited numbers. While estimates vary, it appears that only 61 to 64 Big Tank V-Twins were built from 1936-41. Of that number an estimated 42 to 50 survive today, including the 1939 example pictured in this story. (Several more were assembled in 1942 from extra motors that had been built and from parts previously not meeting Crocker’s inspection criteria.)

jack lilly s 1939 crocker, An American original beautifully restored
An American original, beautifully restored.

'The Crocker motorcycle fans the flames of passion on many levels'

The Crocker V-Twins were built in varying displacements and accessories as dictated by customer preference, and were in effect the first custom bike you could order from a manufacturer. The last batch of Crockers was produced in 1942 as WWII sucked up precious materials. It didn’t help that Crocker priced himself out of the running, losing some $2500 per bike he built from 1936-41. Al Crocker passed away in 1961.

The Crocker motorcycle fans the flames of passion on many levels. As Crocker collector and historian Randy Wiggins sums it up: “Al Crocker set out to produce in limited quantity the most opulent, fastest, best handling motorcycle in the world, the premier roadster. It was a hotrod cruiser, the first power cruiser. You’ve got to remember it was 15 mph faster than its Harley and Indian competition and even outperformed the Brough-Superior SS100 and Vincent Series A. They are absolutely the Holy Grail of motorcycles. They were built to an ideal rather than a standard. A Crocker is a Crocker. Nothing comes close.”

jack lilly s 1939 crocker

The leather saddle of this particular Crocker “Big Tank” bears the signature of Jack Lilly, one of the founders of the legendary Boozefighters motorcycle club rendered notorious by the indelible photos from Hollister, CA appearing in LIFE magazine. After returning from WWII service in the Pacific, Jack purchased this bike from Al Crocker’s shop in 1946; this machine thus carries the patina of several milestones in motorcycling history.

At some point the Crocker passed from Jack’s hands and “disappeared” for several decades but then was found owned by a major collector by the name of Daniel Statnekov who actually had been riding the bike all around Arizona back in the 1980s. When one of Jack Lilly’s friends discovered he had the bike he contacted Daniel with the news that Jack, would be attending the reunion of the Boozefighters taking place in Texas.

The year was 2001. Statnekov brought the bike to the reunion as a surprise for Jack, who, when presented with the bike –now meticulously restored and painted in the green and white colors of his club– climbed aboard his long lost Crocker with great delight. Not only was it a reunion with his fellow Booze Fighters, he was brought together again after decades with his beloved No. 103. He was asked to sign the bike’s saddle which he did, inscribing his name, the Booze Fighters, and also his length of time with the Crocker, 1946 to that particular moment, 2001. At the age of 82 Jack was still flying his ultra-light airplane over his 1400 acre ranch in the Cahuilla Indian Reservation. Sadly, "Crocker" Jack Lilly motored on in June 2005.

jack lilly s 1939 crocker
jack lilly s 1939 crocker, Good ol 103
Good ol' #103.

'If you follow vintage bikes at all, you’re aware that Crocker V-Twins are fetching astronomical prices in excess of $250,000 and beyond'

As its serial number implies Crocker #103 was completed in 1939 (apparently in mid-year), and is powered by an engine of 61 cubic-inch displacement. While it bears the serial number 103, it is known that Al Crocker tended to skip serial numbers in order to create the impression that he had produced more motorcycles than actually rolled out of his shop, thus the discrepancy in estimates of total machines produced, the number smaller than indicated by serial numbers.

This particular machine’s engine was restored by acknowledged Crocker master-restorer Ernie Skelton, utilizing original NOS “Grade A” parts, and by Johnny Eagles and Randy Wiggins who also contributed to the project while Damon Ritchie applied the stunning and accurate paint job.

If you follow vintage bikes at all, you’re aware that Crocker V-Twins are fetching astronomical prices in excess of $250,000 and beyond. It was an American classic that languished in the background for decades, known and valued by only a few, but now enjoying a revival of unparalleled proportions, but certainly well-deserved.

This particular example, the Jack Lilly Crocker recently went up for grabs, or should we
say, up for large bank accounts, at a special no-reserve auction conducted by RM Auctions that took place on Saturday June 14, 2008. The location was Joe’s Garage museum in Tustin, CA, the auction involving 23 rare American motorcycles and 40 rare classic cars, street rods and racers that Joe MacPherson had accumulated over the years. Joe was a larger than life personality who developed the auto mega mall concept and owned several dealerships. His passion for the SoCal lifestyle and its cars and motorcycles shone brightly via his collection and with his passing in May 2007 at age 78, his cars and motorcycles themselves passed on to new, grateful owners.

One very fortunate collector went home with the Jack Lilly Crocker. When the auctioneer’s gavel fell for the final bid, it was, with buyer’s premium added, a princely sum of $300,000.

Engine:1000cc (61 ci) 45 degree OHV V-Twin
Transmission: Three-speed handshift
Frame:Rigid with springer front end
Brakes:Drum, front and rear
Wheelbase:62.5 inches
Weight:475 lb.
Top Speed:115+ mph

The Boozefighter Motorcycle Club

Returning from the carnage of fighting in WWII, large numbers of returning GI’s were looking for some of that intense brotherhood seared by the flames of war. They were also looking for unencumbered freedom from the rigors of military life. Some of those vets road bikes, the combination resulting in formation in 1946 of The Boozefighter Motorcycle Club (BFMC), its founder recognized as "Wino" Willie Forkner (who passed away in 1997) along with George Manker and Jack Lilly).

The club and its members left indelible impressions on American Culture (and the world) when the earned the notorious status as the original “Wild Ones” when they partied hearty at the infamous Hollister, California event of July 4, 1947. Up on the big screen, and naturally blown out of proportions, audiences for decades have been entranced by the film supposedly chronicling the event and its participants, in the classic film “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando with Lee Marvin in the role of “Wino” Willie. (By the way, Jack Lilly missed attending the July 4th event as his wife was having a baby at the time.)

jack lilly s 1939 crocker, The original Jack Lilly on his original Crocker
The original Jack Lilly on his original Crocker.

As their official club statement reads, “The term "Boozefighter" does not mean we are against responsible use of alcohol. However, we do forbid the use of non-prescription drugs, or any form of illegal activity. Furthermore they explain that “The Boozefighters have never been "one-percenters" or an Outlaw Club. We believe in respecting the rights of all motorcycle clubs in a peaceful, co-existent manner, and of all members of the community. We believe in freedom of choice and freedom of the road.”

That positive image, despite years of media misrepresentation, also extends to the BFMC support of various fundraisers like the Tarrant County Toy Run (Texas) that benefits children with the Mental Health Retardation Society and Wish with Wings, Inc who provides presents for children impacted by debilitating diseases.

Today The BFMC is one of the oldest active motorcycle clubs in existence with chapters across the United States and abroad. And as they sum it up, “A truly international organization. It is this rich history that is being preserved in the spirit of fellowship and good fun.”

More info at http//:www.bfmcnatl.com

Related Reading
Road Test: 1946 Indian Chief
1937 BMW R12
32nd Annual El Camino Bike Show
Joe’s Garage Vintage Auction Wrap-up

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