May 20 • 08:49 AM

A product of inspiration

Local man follows in footsteps of neighbor, mentor from Australian days

John Taylor stands beside the Norton 850 Commando motorcycle he built from the ground up. Norton, always inquisitive, is intrigued by the café racers and how they got started. photo by Iris Lee Underwood.

October 03, 2007
From the time he was a child through his teen years, John Taylor would sit on his neighbor's front brick wall two doors up in Adelaide, Australia. He talked and listened to the man who became his mentor. On that humble hedge, Colin Burgess, a jeweler by trade, captivated and molded Taylor's inquisitive mind with subjects such as model airplanes, aerodynamics and astronomy.

"He had three daughters and was dying to have a son," recalls Taylor, a retired General Motors aesthetic designer. "He was always making something, like model airplanes. He gave me a model of a DeHavilland Rapide. I remember his techniques, our conversations about things you like to talk to your dad about. Mr. B influenced me in all sorts of ways."

For instance, after surviving a motorcycle crash at age 18, Taylor graduated from Adelaide University as an architect in 1962.

"I always wanted to work for GM after I saw a copy of 'Road & Track' magazine featuring the opening of the GM Tech Center in Warren. The accident sort of knocked bike racing on the head a bit, so I turned to race cars," Taylor reflects with a smile.

Young, impressionable and itching to build something, teamed up with Gary Cooper, a model airplane enthusiast, and built a race car.

In 1962, Taylor left home and mentor to witness other spectacular things like Formula One racing, "an expensive and extreme form of auto road racing" that originated in England. He settled in Stevenage, England where he began long-term employment with Vauxhall Motors, a company bought by General Motors before WW II. He realized his dreams in Vauxhall's design facilities and studios where he learned industrial design, the fine aesthetics of automotive engineering and products.

Taylor slides a book from a bookshelf, one of several units he built from ceiling to floor that line two walls of his finished basement. He opens the book and thumbs through pages of his sketches and renderings.

"I worked mostly on advanced concepts, show cars and trucks. They were great, fantastic years. I loved what I did," Taylor grins.

Like Mr. B, he was always working, building, making something. Oftentimes during that decade in the 70s and 80s at Vauxhall, the boundaries between work and play were a blur while he studied Nathaniel Herreshoff's yacht, the Ticonderoga, and built a 50 foot yacht in his leisure time.

Taylor shakes his head in awe of the memory.

"It was a perfect blend of cutting-edge engineering and aesthetics, working on advanced projects with a small team, always pushing the envelope. The creativity, the productivity, was astounding," he says.

Like the Styling Research Vehicle with the redesigned engine and transmission premiered as a show car at the National Exhibition Center in Birmingham, England. The purpose of the project? To study weight distribution: the affects of aerodynamics on vehicle dynamics.

"We did loads of those advanced concepts," Taylor says, and turns the pages of the book to renderings and photos of the SS100. "This car was 100 inches long, got 100 miles per gallon, and reached 100 miles per hour. Then we made a SS120, a car 120 inches long. We used the wind tunnel to test the drag, the pressure of the wind on the vehicle that slows it up," Taylor says.

It was a charmed life for the designer: in the right place at the right time. And although he never owned or rode a motorbike while he lived and worked in England, he was fascinated with the cultural phenomenon of England's café racing that roared through London in the 50s and 60s. The spirit of the 'Rockers,' the rev of the engines, is still vivid and loud in his mind. It's in his soul.

"The café racers were made by the riders. They were homemade bikes built by pretty rough blokes," Taylor recalls in his Aussie accent.

Although the Rockers were the dominant group of café racers, Taylor explains the racers included a wide spectrum of young men and bikes, a unique genre, who loved to make fast bikes for the sake of beauty, speed and self-expression.

"The Rockers started at the ACE Café on North Circular Road and raced through London to the Chelsea Bridge and back to the café in the time it took to play a 45 record.

"See, what happened," Taylor digresses, "the 'Mods' rode motor scooters, and every Easter weekend they'd meet with the Rockers and have a scrap."

Taylor heard about the café races when he lived in England in the 60s, and the heritage is kept alive today by "the old blokes" who were the original racers and still serious about bikes and racing. Contemporary bikers and people all over the globe who are passionate about bikes pay "good money" to own one of the original café racers, or even their parts, Taylor says.

As for John Taylor, inspired by a Norvin he viewed at an exhibit in the Guggenheim in New York, he's making his own café racer with parts he's found on the Web. A Norvin, of course. A man who knows bikes, that delicate, agile balance of brawn and beauty, he chose the featherweight Norton Commando frame to hold a Vincent engine, "a real jewel," Taylor adds.

"It's the ultimate café racer," he says without a trace of doubt. "Now that I'm retired, I'm getting back into bikes, but no racing. Not in a million years."

The man who built a 50 foot yacht in England, worked for Opel in Germany for ten years, and was part of the APEX Team that reinvented the art and science of the Cadillac at the G.M. Tech Center in the 90s, is smarter than that.

Taylor fishes for another book as his wife Mavis hands him a cup of coffee. John and Mavis met at Vauxhall Motors in 1988, married in 1989 and moved to the area seven years ago. Their home is furnished with cabinets, fireplaces and bookshelves that John built, and decorated with Mavis' clean, smooth artistic touch.

"I always wanted to have so many books that I'd walk into my library and forget I had the book I find." Taylor opens a book containing sketches of Nathaniel Herreshoff's Ticonderoga. "I sailed on it once. It was magic."

Magic, like when he met Enzo Ferrari after restoring one of his cars. And the "grand life experience" of visiting the Bertone design house in the foothills of the Piedmont Mountains in Italy.

"Mr. Bertone was a quiet gentleman. All the designers who visited him wanted to please him because he inspired us to create," Taylor says.

Inspired him like Colin Burgess, his main model.

Taylor retrieves from his archives a photo of his mentor on a motorbike.

"When I lived in Adelaide, I went to Mr. B's every Christmas morning for a smoked ham sandwich," Taylor says, a bit choked up. "The last time I went home, he opened the door and said, 'Son!' Then he showed me his bike."

Taylor climbs the stairs to the garage and his café racer in the making.

"Mavis and I are becoming Americans," he says. "We love it here. This is the first house we've ever owned. A house on five wooded acres. We could never afford a house like this anywhere else in the world."

Thankfully, meticulously, patiently, the visionary prepares the frame of his Norton Commando to hold his diamond, the Vincent engine he's redesigning with an electric starter. He remembers Mr. B's techniques as he sketches, molds and files.

It's a charmed life: in the right place at the right time. Those chats on Mr. B's front wall continue to influence John Taylor in all sorts of ways.

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