WINTERPORT, Maine — Chuck Sim works on some of the most valuable and iconic vintage motorcycles you can imagine — BSAs, Nortons, BWMs, Ducatis, Moto Guzzis and others — and he owns more than a few himself, in various stages of repair and restoration.
In fact, you may have seen some of his beautiful old bikes recently, dressing up the storefront windows of the Antiques Marketplace in downtown Bangor. The big eyecatcher is a 1939 BSA “war model,” its gas tank painted an unlikely sky blue by a previous owner. There’s also a cute little 1956 Moto Guzzi Ladola — the name means ‘“lark” in Italian — in the window and, inside, an elegant 1968 BMW touring bike.
The Antiques Marketplace seems a surprising place to unload such classic beauties, but Sim says he’s just beginning to cull some of his personal machines and isn’t in a hurry to pass them on.
“I don’t really expect to sell them there,” he confessed during a recent tour of his Winterport workshop. “I just like seeing them in the window.”
A nice opportunity
Sim, his wife, Amy, and their two daughters came to the Bangor area from Massachusetts in 1999. That was the year he accepted an offer from area businessman Christopher Hutchins, whose antique cars Sim had been working on out of the prestigious Paul Russell and Company restoration workshop in in Essex, Massachusetts, for several years. Hutchins wooed him away from the Russell shop and set him up in a state-of-the-art workshop in Brewer, tending exclusively to his own considerable collection.
“It was a very nice opportunity for me,” Sim said. But Hutchins’ fortunes shifted and in 2007, Sim found himself transitioning into self-employment. By word of mouth, he was able to establish clients in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and in 2008 he built a spacious new workshop and metal fabrication shop at his home in Winterport. Work since then has been steady and profitable. He’s selective about the projects he accepts, a luxury he admits he enjoys, especially as he gets older.
Most of his work these days is “bench work” — rebuilding old car engines, transmissions and other components that people bring or ship to him. But he also enjoys working on classic motorcycles, including a sleek, black Norton 850 he’s currently putting together for a client in Holden.
“He’s had it in his garage for a couple of years but wasn’t finding the time to work on it,” Sim said. “This was the sexiest bike on the market in the 1970s.”
Following his heart
Sim’s interest in bikes and motorcycles surfaced when he was just a kid, with a series of old bicycles he took apart and, sometimes, put back together in the family garage in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
“My oldest brother was very mechanical and he was my mentor,” Sim said. Weekends, they’d go to the town dump together to look for parts.
“All I had for tools was a screwdriver and an adjustable wrench,” he said, but that was enough to keep him busy and happy.
Sim was 14 when he traded his Swiss Army knife for a Zinelli motorbike. Or maybe it was a Zanella, or a Benelli? He can’t quite remember.
“Well, it was just the frame, anyway. There was no engine,” he clarified. No problem — his brother’s friend had a spare Yamaha two-stroke lying around. Sim fashioned the Japanese engine into the Italian frame and took off.
“I had a piece of clothesline tied onto the back brake lever so I could stop,” he recalled with a smile. “It basically ran on one cylinder but sometimes that second cylinder would kick in and I’d get quite a jolt.”
A little later that year, he bought his first functioning bike, a Hodaka “Super Rat” dirt bike. By then, he said, motorcycles were a taboo topic in his house and Sim was not prepared to brave his father’s disapproval.
“I ended up lying and keeping it at a friend’s house until my dad found out about it,” he said, wincing a bit at the memory. After the dust settled, though, Sim became “that kid” who rode a dirt bike to school most days, following an old railroad bed because the bike wasn’t street-legal.
Sim’s interests ran counter to his family’s expectations that he would go to college and pursue a professional career. He followed his heart instead and his high school performance reflected that choice.
“I was not an academic success,” he said, but he perked up in metal shop, where his interests were encouraged and he learned more about fabricating parts and putting things back together.
“I had a really great shop teacher,” Sim said. “If I was skipping English or something, he had no problem with having me over in the corner, rebuilding a dirt bike.”
He started hanging around the local motorcycle shop.
“It was the kind of thing you could do as a kid back then, hanging around a motorcycle shop,” Sim said.
The old stuff
After high school, he worked a different jobs here and there, as a radio technician, a restaurant worker, a mechanic, a welder. In 1983, he opened his own general car repair business in Essex, just down the street from the high-end Paul Russell shop.
“As the rich get richer, they are attracted to his business,” Sim said. “They work on very sexy old cars. People drool as they drive by.”
When Sim’s landlord sold the building in 1986 and he was forced to close his business, he screwed up his courage and approached Paul Russell about working for him.
“He called me back a couple of weeks later and offered me a job,” he said. “The pay wasn’t that great, but I have always loved working with leather and steel, the old stuff.” He learned on the job, refining his mechanical skills and managing all aspects of each full car restoration project, from the wheel rims to the upholstery to the final paint job.
“It was an excellent experience,” he said, one that prepared him well for the work he’s been doing since moving to Maine.
Now that he’s 60, Sim said, he’s starting to think about freeing up more personal time, downsizing his business, decluttering his crowded workspace.
“If I don’t do it now, Amy will have to do it later,” he said, “or my daughters.” Placing three of his classic motorcycles at the Antiques Marketplace is a start.
He’s not in a mood to dicker — he’s set a price of $5,000 each on the big BSA and the little Moto Guzzi, and $12,000 for the BMW touring bike.
“I’d like them to go to someone who wants them badly enough to pay that much,” he said. He’ll miss those particular bikes when they sell, but he has others to choose from when he’s in the mood.
“I like to take a ride to the coast once in awhile, meet some guys at a nice place for breakfast,” he said. “We mostly talk about old motorcycles.”