A story about my last dirt track sponsor, Ace Cycle World
PROSKIN and ACE CYCLE WORLD
First ten paragraphs by Buzz Walneck, the rest by Dan Schmitt
I had the pleasure of sitting at the same time with a real giant in the motorcycle business the other day at The Chicagoland Motorcycle Racing Legends Brunch.” This is an annual event attended by about 100 racers, shop owners and enthusiasts.
The man next to me, Basil Proskin, opened up a typical motorcycle shop of about 900 square feet to house the shop, showroom, parts department, restroom and office. The year was 1947 and British bikes were the hot item.
Those were the good old days. Basil was a dealer for Velocette, Triumph, BSA, Royal-Enfield, James, Ariel, Norton, Ducati and Moto-Guzzi, and he later took on Honda as well. What a wealth of knowledge Basil is. He is sharp as a tack, funny and remembers so much as to the good and bad of the bikes he handled.
He said that in 1949 a brand-new BSA B33 500 single sold for $895.00 based on the $2.85 British pound. England then devalued the pound to $2.50 to export more goods, and the BSA price dropped to $550.00 U.S. dollars! This was tough on dealers selling imports.
Basil’s business started growing, and in 1958 he wound up moving into a 2,000 square foot building with an additional 1,000 square feet in the basement. Not a lot of people were allowed to go downstairs, and there are many Chicago stories of the treasures that lurked down there, or the bike with a bullet hole through the gas tank.
Some customers really like to relate to those old days where floors were dirty. There was a 55-gallon drum near the center of the shop and it was for garbage. Woe to the thoughtless person who threw paper or trash on the floor. Basil would boom out “You animal!”
I was also asked to mention Rosie, who was a pencil sketch of a lady, in the men’s room. An occasional beer can could be seen floating around. Basil was known to have his beer after work mostly, but others tell of him taking them for a demo ride down the alley as a passenger when Basil had a little beer in him early. Nobody was allowed to take or try a demo ride before buying a motorcycle, period.
What kind of bike did Basil own? None. He just used whatever trade-in that came in. He has driven so many different makes and models, it boggles the mind.
While telling me these things, he occasionally says things like, “Do you know why a Moto-Guzzi Falcone 500 single, with the horizontal engine, runs backward? The crankshaft flings some oil into the bottom side of the piston for lubrication and cooling.” Or he would say, “”What is the worst motorcycle ever made?” and I would say, “Basil, I don’t know. What is the worst motorcycle ever made?” His answer was a Norton 400 Electra. The starter motor sounded like a dump truck and when they would start, they vibrated so badly that the factory came out with a fix by sending two metal bars to attach to the motor and then up to the frame.
Ace cycle World kind of sponsored some riders as their racing team. Basil referred to them as his “Horizontal Riders,” as they were always falling down.
In the early
1960’s Ace Cycle World expanded to become the largest motorcycle dealer in the
Midwest. A modern showroom of six thousand square feet had over one hundred
motorcycles on display. Besides being one of the greatest Honda dealers in the
USA, Ace led the region in BSA, Norton, MotoGuzzi and Ducati sales. Right behind
the showroom was the Parts Department, equally as large, with tens of thousands
of parts stacked floor to ceiling. Next door, the Service Department was one and
one-half times as large with ten to fifteen full time mechanics.
joined ‘Shaboogie’ (Schaumburg) as the one-two salemen. Warren White moved
up to run the organized parts department and Jack became the service manager.
Basil just let these three departments compete for the ‘top dollar
achievement’ every month.
It was the
service department that had the most action with the largest number of
employees. Across from Jack was Ronny, the assistant service manager, next to
him was either Willie ‘the missing’ Link, who raced Ducatis, Jimmy Woods,
Tracy and Carl Rutheford, three flat trackers. Not all at one time, but they
worked there. Next to Jack was Jim Bowling and then Dancin’ Dan. In the next
room over, it was Hud, VanSkyke and Larry Pfrenger, who was replaced by Jake.
Another ten to fifteen mechanics worked at Ace over this twenty year span, too
many to name. Next door to that was the warehouse where mechanic trainees
uncrated the new bikes and got them ready for delivery. They had a spray booth
where Robert VanSkike did custom paint jobs and stored his Corvette.
Christmas party was beyond comparison. A beer tapper was in back with five-cent
beers and the latest XXX rated video was playing on one of the early VCRs. What
a way to celebrate the holidays! Later, when Basil’s sons were older and had a
band, they joined Joe Charles and some of the other mechanics to play rock’n
roll and blues music well into the night. This was one of the greatest draws for
the loyal customers. The Christmas parties over the years produced some of the
greatest live music I ever witnessed. Robert, Jake, young Bobby, etc, the list
goes on. These moments will live forever in the memories of those who were
But then, that was it, Ace closed down for the month of
January. Everyone got a month’s vacation. Basil handed out the vacation checks
before he locked up the door. Additionally,
it should be mentioned, his employees shared in a profit sharing pension plan.
In 1974, Tom
Prassas, Jack’s brother-in-law, joined the crew and was instrumental in the
launch of Basil’s new product, MAXUM 75. After Basil bartered for the design
of this cable lock from John Gunther, Tom began to set up the machinery to
manufacture the lock in the warehouse. A 1920’s one-hundred ton press was used
to press the ends of the cable, a hydraulic snipper cut the cable and a
pneumatic tool finished the product. With the design of the STOP package, the
product was introduced to the public in 1975. It was a big success with
motorcycle distributors lining up for delivery and Sears signing a contract for
a huge commitment.
World sold hundreds of bikes, on a good Saturday, they nearly reached the
one-hundred mark. And this was a
cash only business, they didn’t take checks. Financing was hard to come by
from banks and credit cards did not exist.
A few riders revved up their new bikes in front, dropped the
clutch and ended up on the porches of the houses across Western Avenue. One poor
soul wheeled out of the driveway and ended up under a CTA bus. That pressed
frame SL90 was really pressed. All in all, most customers survived and came back
for bigger and better motorcycles.
building one of the largest motorcycle dealers in the nation and creating a hot
selling cable lock, Basil looked around for another market to conquer. He went
to Missouri to buy some land, run some farms and invest in a grain elevator.
Whereas in Chicago, a handshake is a man’s bond, his partners in Missouri were
scheming, worthless, --it eating rascals. Besides this problem, he left the
management of Ace Cycle World to his two sons. They had their own problems and
did not have the fortitude of their father. With two brush fires raging in two
states, Basil threw in the towel and took an early retirement.
An era ended
on Western Ave in Chicago on January 10, 1987. A time of motorcycle sales, parts
sold and bikes repaired passed. Great friends lost a truly remarkable location
for telling tales, bench racing and great deeds done. But maybe in hindsight, it
was a blessing. With the over management of business practice by the
manufacturers, lawsuits from idiotic customers and regulation from over zealous
government bodies, the motorcycle business has changed and the fun filled,
casual days of old are gone forever.
White Photos by Robert Van Skike
Visitors as of 02/10/2011
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