The addiction shows in Sutton’s ability to accessorize his ride. Everything strapped onto the back of the bike is “original German Army, the common gear that an average infantryman would have had: ammo canister, gas-mask canister, knapsack…in World War II, if you had a vehicle, you lived out of it.” The leather saddlebags, he grants, are Polish reproductions (less expensive), and his heavy leather gloves were worn by British dispatch riders during WWII, not Germans — but at least they fit with the purpose of the single-cylinder R35.
His unmodified motorcycle — just what Charger Steve ordered! — is one more part of his collection, more an artifact you can ride than anything else. “I really enjoy talking about it, giving people the history. I mean, it went through the Second World War; it still had the original German nomenclature plate on the front fender. It gives me a chance to enlighten people. The first thing they do is say, ‘Whoa! Is that a Nazi motorcycle?’ They always get the notion that if you were a German soldier, you had to be a Nazi. Something like three percent of the German population were card-carrying members of the Nazi Party. I have fun educating them — it’s the teacher in me.”
Mind you, it’s not that Sutton wouldn’t love to own a car from the ’30s or ’40s. It’s that he just bought a house. The motorcycle, brought over from Lithuania to Oregon and auctioned off to Sutton on eBay, cost him a reasonably sane $3200. Five years later, it’s just about road-ready, “though I’m still working the kinks out. I’m still working on getting the third and fourth gear to go in because there’s one bolt on the shifting tower that controls that, and the threads are just worn. Because it’s a single cylinder, it vibrates to hell, and screws are coming out.”
Getting the thing from a barn in Oregon to Main Street in El Cajon was something of a history lesson in itself, starting with the paint. “When I got it, it was painted black. Somebody had literally applied it with a brush. Typical Eastern European, Soviet Bloc — ‘We don’t have anything, so use bubble gum and make it run.’ I started sanding it down, and below the black paint was Russian Army pea-green. The Russians were notorious for reusing captured German vehicles. Below that was German Army Panzer gray. They used it from the beginning of the war until about 1943, when they realized it didn’t really blend in well with Russia and North Africa and switched to Ordinance Tan. And below that was the factory-applied BMW black paint. Originally, there was a white pinstripe all around the frame and fender — very Art Deco. And half the bike was chrome. But for the army, you want everything painted as flat as possible, so that you don’t glimmer in the sun and draw attention to yourself.”
Sutton eventually found a Chula Vista auto-paint shop that could match the color on his old Mauser cleaning kit. He borrowed a compressor and laid on a new coat of Panzer gray but not before he made a few more discoveries. “It was a rusted-up pile of crap when I got it, and when I sat down with it, I realized it was a classic Eastern European chop-job: a mixture of pre- and postwar BMW parts and a Zündapp rear drive and rear wheel. Joe Schmoe Soviet-guy had literally bent the frame out, cut extra holes, and taken a hacksaw to it to make sure he could fit in a rear drive from this other German motorcycle company. BMW stopped making this model in 1940; they made only about 15,000. The postwar parts were there because at the end of World War II, the Soviets captured one of the BMW factories that made the R35, and they started manufacturing the motorcycle under the BMW name. West Germany ended up suing the Soviet government to make them stop, so the Soviets renamed it the EMW factory and made minor modifications to the parts.” Not that Sutton is complaining — by continuing the model, the Soviets helped ensure that today, eBay Germany would have plenty of what he needed to fulfill the historian’s dream of making history come alive. Or at least getting it up to 45 mph.
Ray Dowd, 66
’40 Ford convertible (among others)
“Ray’s Wherehouse” reads the sign on the steel-sided building with the dilapidated jalopy lolling in the rock lawn out front. Inside, however, nothing is dilapidated. Inside, everything is clean and in fine condition, from the high stacks of model cars still in their boxes to the pool table to the golf cart to the desk to the four cars that take up about half the floor space. “That’s a ’34 Chevy,” says Dowd, settling in behind his desk and pointing to the car nearest me. “I bought it from the DEA — long story, I won’t bore you with it. In the corner is a ’32 Ford. Next to it is a ’40 Ford” — the Viper-blue convertible he brought to the Cruise. “And next to that is a Corvette that I bought new [in 1997].”
The four cars amount to less than half his collection; the rest resides in an identical building behind this one. “I’ve always had an interest in cars,” he says. “As a youngster, myself and a friend would sneak out of church to go lift the hoods on the cars in the lot and try to identify the parts. I enjoy working on them. I enjoy looking at them. To me, some of them are art — form follows function.” He gestures toward the model cars. “I enjoy reflecting on the styles as they evolved over the years; it’s a kind of little mental exercise. And I enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded people.”
The “like-minded” part is key because at the end of the day, this is a hobby, and there’s only so far the gawkers can see into the hobbyist’s world. “The evening you were in El Cajon,” Dowd says, “my neighbor was there. He brought his ’37 Cord — just beautiful. Fresh from a two-and-a-half-year restoration. No one paid much attention to it. They didn’t know what it was, thought it was a foreign car. But if he was in the presence of other, similar people, they would appreciate it. They would be all over the car. So again, it depends on who, when, where, what.”