From the Blog

The amazing story of George Disteel

Distell

Long time readers will know that I pride myself on publishing only original content on this blog site. If you want to know what other writers feel about the shape of things, then they have their own sites where that information can be found. One of the things that makes this site unique is the fact that, in 99.999% of cases, what you read here won’t be found anywhere else but here.

Today I am going to break that rule because I have stumbled across this article which must be shared. I have been waiting for the author to contact me for some weeks now, giving me permission to reprint the article but I have heard nothing. Consequently, I am going to go ahead and publish in the hope that his silence on the matter is tacit permission to do so. So, here is an amazing, true story. The text is long, but well worth reading through to the end. My apologies for the paragraphing, I can’t seem to make the carriage returns stick.

The Bizarre Story of Crazy George Disteel and His Secret Cache of Vincents

George Disteel could have been just another of the many down-and-out souls who meet their ends every day in the streets of San Francisco. But George was not just another bum. Though a recluse, he was one of Marin County’s most celebrated eccentrics, and the lead character in one of motorcycling’s most unbelievable yet true legends. Twenty years ago Disteel’s son was killed highballing a Vincent, then the fastest production motorcycle in the world. In rage and revenge George, himself a hotshoe biker, began buying up motorcycles, in particular Vincents, and squirreling them away so others would not have the chance to be killed riding them.
Rumors about “Crazy” George circulated for years, but they seemed just that rumors, until I ran across a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Mystery of the Motorcycle Man,” reporting the death of a 74-year-old derelict along the City’s skid row one chilly November day. All that was known about him was that, unaccountably, he was the owner of perhaps dozens of old motorcycles. Intrigued, I put on my gumshoes and did some Sam Spade work. The saga I unearthed has kept me enthralled for the last year.
Little is known about George Disteel’s youth except that he was born in 1904 in Pennsylvania and later joined the Marines to serve 12 years in China during the “Sand Pebble” gunboat diplomacy days. It wasn’t until the 1940s that he discovered the rustic hills of Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate. During the next 30 years George became a familiar yet strange apparition roaming the county as a motorcyclist, bicyclist and, in his later years, hiker. Rain or shine he was to be seen from Mill Valley to the Russian River riding bare chested, his belly-length whiskers flowing in the breeze. He was addicted to a strange diet of “natural” foods and practiced an extreme regimen of fitness activities, including as much as 15 miles of hiking or bicycling, hundreds of pushups and a thousand sit-ups every day.
A master carpenter, George came to be put in charge of a 3 man construction gang. Ever aloof, he was known to warm up only to kids and apprentices in his charge. Apprentice Jim Long knew he had arrived as a confidant the day George finally spilled out his classic tale of woe. As he told it, his wife had died giving birth and his only son was killed in his twentieth year during a wild ride on his mighty Vincent. Perhaps birthed by Long, the legend of Crazy George grew. It told of his lifelong dedication to hunt down the “deadly” Vincents and other vintage Superbikes .. so that others wouldn’t be killed.”
Mill Valley neighbors recall George as the recluse who lived in an old shanty and smelled “like low tide.” Encircling his home was a veranda on which he displayed his Indians, BSAs, a Brough and several other motorcycles. Outstanding was his road machine, a shiny new Vincent twin dubbed “Sad Sack.”. Other than a short-lived affair many years ago, his early neighbors report that “Nature Boy” lived alone, raising still unanswered questions about the reality of his legendary “son,” although I have learned that later on he seems to have had a liaison with another Marin character, the Goat Lady, who haunted the streets of Sausalito.
In any event, after the loss of his real or “adopted” son in the late Fifties, George seemed to snap. He moved out of his shack, ceased displaying his motorcycles and began imprisoning them in chicken coops, crates, old vans, barns and other bizarre locations. No more was he to enjoy the excursions which took him as far away as Mexico on Sad Sack. But try as hard as he could, he still couldn’t kick bikes out of his blood and dreams. Countless Marinites still recall the specter of Crazy George daily pedaling his heavy Schwinn bicycle far out into the country. He had found a “gentler” way of staying on two wheels. He often carried a dog strapped to his back in a rucksack as he careened wild-eyed down Corte Madera Grade “hands off,” or challenged, and often beat, other bikers down Mount Tamalpais’ treacherous hairpins.
George scrounged, lived like a hermit and added to his carpenter’s income by making shrewd land deals. His growing fortune provided the key to launch his Vincent Vendetta. Before it was over, nearly half the Vincents in upper California were to fall into his clutches. To help flush out Vincents, Disteel recruited the Bay Area’s three Vincent specialists, Vaughn Greene, Phil Titus, and Pete Adams-an expatriate from England who founded the famous Inverness Sunday Morning Ride. When asked about the legend. Greene said, “Old George would only tell me that he wanted to ‘invest’ in Vincents. About his ‘son,’ I still have my doubts.” But Titus has no doubts. “George’s boy loved to push his Vincent, outrun the cops and do anything to be King of the Road.” Both described Disteel’s growing collection of Vincent twins: at one time there were 13 dovetailed into Adam’s San Rafael shop.
In the early Sixties Jim Luchini, one of his apprentice carpenters, convinced George the thefts, stripping and joy riding that were plaguing his collection could be avoided by moving his bikes north to a brick chicken house near Cotati. Except for a brief interlude when deputies confiscated the machines (they were returned when George gave up an early property tax revolt), the menagerie remained secure in the chicken house until Disteel’s death. According to the legend that grew up around the collection George had ordered the motorcycles burned in a fiery climax to his Vendetta upon his demise, but Luchini’s father recently insisted there were no destruction orders, while Jim asserted that George had indeed wanted them destroyed.
Whatever the case may be, George often underscored his Possession Obsession by declaring. “1 never sell anything once I own it!” Only once was he ever known to part with something without destroying it first. In 1968 he called on Jim Long to help load a new Royal Enfield into a truck and deliver it to his “Death Row” in Cotati. (By now George had lost his driver’s license because of severe cataracts. In order to get better visual images, he wore a patch he switched from one eye to the other.) When Jim casually inquired about his collection, George hesitated, then signed the Enfield’s pink slip, which he handed over as he blurted out, “Here you take the RE and forget about the trip.” Jim was floored, but gratefully accepted George’s show of generosity. Disteel seemed to have suddenly taken the notion that even Long couldn’t be trusted to keep the location a secret.
A few years later, George retired from contracting and became a caretaker and watchman for several auto wreckers near Novato. He was never happier than when surrounded by relics on wheels. One wrecker named J. Terry described him: “He was shrewd but had some intolerable habits. He’d ride one of the cycles-Vincents, Nortons, BSAs-a few days and then stuff it into a van and pile old rags and paper around the bike until it was hidden… The last straw was when he built a doorless shed around a ’54 Dodge van and a pedal bike… I asked him why he was building something no one could get into and he gave me this cold stare and told me, ‘I got my reasons.’ One time he brought in about a hundred old rifles and began to conceal them like me bikes.” That did it. George was soon given his walking papers.
Undaunted, he managed to get another caretaker lob in 1972 at the Boyd Museum in San Rafael in exchange for free lodging. Surrounded by wild critters, more relics and understanding friends, George seemed to come out of his shell. Museum director Bruce Blake had strange tales to tell about the sagacious old man. “We used to have our daily pre-work chats. One time a cyclist pulled up wearing a helmet. George commented that he wouldn’t have lost ‘someone’ long ago had he likewise worn one. “George was a wizard at real estate, politics, kinematics … he used to bring in armloads of books from the library and read them with a strong magnifying glass one word at a time.” During one of the chats George commented excitedly about a new Kawasaki that road tested at 160 mph. He couldn’t resist boasting that his Black Shadows were the fastest in their day.
Intolerable habits and forgetfulness again got George the gate in 1975. Despite repeated warnings from Blake, he had persisted in stuffing every nook and cranny of the museum with rags and papers. It wasn’t until later that Blake realized an expensive collection of woven Indian baskets had been flattened under the burden of packrat pickings. Still, George continued to hang around the museum getting into mischief. A skinny-dipping episode led to a visit to the local police station. Unable to put a rap on him, the officers let George go with a switch-hit warning that he could no longer sleep in his litter-filled ’52 Hudson parked near the Boyd Museum. Enraged, George held back his 150 pounds of fury until lie returned “home.” Then with a heavy sledgehammer he savagely destroyed the old Hudson and hauled it to the wrecking yard in Novato for compression and recycling.
Having worn out his welcome at the Boyd, George settled into a flophouse called the Rose Hotel in San Francisco. He still could not resist the call of the open road and continued to trek almost daily across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. Motorcycle salesman Jerry Smith of Marin Motor Sports recalls the weekly visits George used to make there. “Crazy George? We used to call him Mr. Natural because of the way he looked stepping along Francisco Boulevard here. He’d pop in and stand there sort of spaced out for about five minutes. One time when he snapped out of it, he tumed on to a Gold Wing and began asking questions you’d expect only from machinist. He wrote out an odd check for $643.26 as a deposit and claimed that he was going to “ride it a bit then store it in his warehouse”: Disteel’s death precluded completion of the down payment and one Gold Wing was saved from a strange destiny. A few weeks after he wrote the check for the Gold Wing George slumped to the sidewalk as hie stepped outside the door of his hotel at 6th and Mission. The coroner reported: DOA, John Doe (having no identification). Diagnosis: Heart failure and emphysema. Age: 74.
Public Administrator Norman Baker had a hunch there was something different about George Disteel though. He wasn’t just another piece of skid row flotsam. Scouring his fleabag room. Baker turned up papers leading to the motorcycle stash in Cotati and Disteel’s remaining real estate, some 24 separate properties. However, Baker’s news release in the Chronicle failed to locate the next of kin or the rest of George’s hidden motorcycles. When I read the story I knew the legend Vincent cultists had passed among themselves of an “eccentric farmer” who had a trove of Vincents chained together in a barn awaiting his “revenge” had to have been connected with Disteel, and was based on truth. I volunteered my Vincent contacts and an appraisal of the cache’s worth to Baker in exchange for a sneak preview.
Disturbed from their suspended animation, the Superbikes of the Fifties had been hauled down from Cotati and propped up in Butterfield’s warehouse in San Francisco. There I beheld them replete with rust. dust, rotten tires and chicken droppings. Included in the line up were six Vincent Black Shadows and two Rapides, a pre-war KSS Velocette, a Norton International next to a Manx frame; two Moto Guzzi thumpers with exposed flywheels, two DKWs. an R51 BMW, a Royal Enfield twin and an S-8 Sunbeam. The authorities decided to sell the bikes at auction. Major TV and newspaper coverage sparked by my casual mention of the historical and monetary worth of the bikes attracted hundreds of old bike buffs and Vincenteers from as far away as Nevada. The first Vincent went for $875, but the glib-tongued auctioneer soon had the bidders stampeded beyond the $1500 mark. As my own beer budget was being outstripped I recalled an earlier question by one of the warehouse workers, “Would anyone really pay over a hundred dollars for that piece of junk?” he asked, pointing at one of the rescued machines. In fact, the state reaped $20,000 in total from the bidders, to be held in trust for seven years awaiting claims from any next of kin George may have living.
Just before Disteel’s death, he boasted he still had 19 Vincents. As I left the auction empty-handed, I had a feeling 11 Vincents were still locked up somewhere out there in chicken land. I called Baker, told him of my hunch, and he invited me to help open three more of George’s storage sites. Shortly I was aiding a salvage crew sifting through tons of oddities George had collected over a 30 year period. Besides the hope of finding almost a dozen more Vincents, I was driven to root through the trash by a conversation with an old caretaker who had known George and once offered to buy a BSA Gold Star from his collection. “I never sell any of my stuff,” George told him. The caretaker was sure that in addition to the Vincents George still had several Goldies, Indians, a Brough and a number of other machines still undiscovered.
Next to the chicken coop where the auctioned bikes had been stored was another room which contained tons of oddities-old clothes, cameras, radios and appliances, unopened mail, pornography, magazines, left-handed implements, photographs, including 20 copies of our photo of shaggy George with a shaggy sheep dog, and so on. The same type of floor that had supported about five tons of motorcycles had collapsed under the weight of all this junk. The collection was piled in complete disorder from the floor to the roof. We spent a week sorting this junk-or so it was to us, but to Crazy George it must have been a treasured hoard.
The real find for me was several Vincent pieces and a Velocette that came out of the heap in installments. First a transmission, then a head, next a cylinder, lower end, frame and so on until about 80 percent of a shaft driven OHC rigid frame KSS Velo was exposed. I marveled over the remnants of the hopped-up motor (cylinder bored till it was eggshell thin, drilled connecting rod, recessed piston).
Then there were the bicycle transmissions. Crazy George was fascinated by molorless two-wheelers as well. Out of the debris came many unopened boxes of exotic bicycle transmissions that were developed at great expense using novel principles. George must have been the talk of Tokheim, as he had bought 16 of the gas pump firm’s single plane gear clusters. They had written him letters inquiring about his application of their product to which he never replied, let alone ever opened. The company might well have wondered, as one bike distributor told me the device never did work. In addition to the Tokheim units were ten Hagan All Speeds, a forward sprocket substitute with a 2:1 range using spiral and slot satellite sprockets on roller ramp bearings. There were also eight Dana three-speeds.
At the two other stashes Baker turned up I eagerly joined in the fray in search of more revelations, now for those which told about Disteel’s character as much as those which might shed light on the location of the still missing motorcycles. ‘Crazy’ George had me under his spell. One storage yard in San Rafael was apparently George’s last packrat effort. He had only begun to pile up the types of goods found at Cotati. We found an early sixties Cadillac and two beat-up old Stepvans. He had at one time used the vans to store some of his Vincents in; their discovery empty must mean he had found some other place to secret them.
More spectacular than the finds in San Rafael were the treasures he had neatly ensconced at the Admiral Storage Company in San Francisco. Beginning in the Forties, Disteel had began carefully preserving a strange assortment of things neatly wrapped in 30 year old newspapers, puzzled together in huge wooden storage boxes: an old Victorian era doctor’s exam table, a gynecologist’s spreader, sexology books, antique hardback books, a huge prewar German caricature depicting doctors and scientists with lovely cadavers, bullet proof glass panels, a bomb sight, and about a hundred rifles, including a number of 1917 Springfields, many still in the cosmoline and boxes in which they had been shipped.
Lloyd Smalley of the Boyd Museum in San Rafael told me that George had become a subject of the FBI’s suspicions as a result of his “gun-a-month-plan” with Sears. The local PD called him in for an interview with the Feds. As Disteel was about to be interrogated, he asked, “It’s legal for Sears to sell rifles to me, isn’t it? Then how can it be illegal for me to buy them?” The befuddled agents turned George loose.
Disteel seems to have been fascinated with the way sophisticated mechanical devices were put together, but not with the way they were used. He had a hundred rifles, but never bought any ammunition. A great assortment of cameras never received a roll of film. And then there were the motorcycles. He would buy them, ride them a day or two, then incarcerate them in one of his secret hide-outs.
Among the items turned up at the three sites we exhumed, we found among bundles of unopened mail and piles of documents, tax liens on dozens of pieces of property George owned. He could not have been poor, despite his eccentricity and his choice of lodgings on skid row in his final years. Just before his death he was as busy as ever, still visiting the San Rafael area and wandering the hills. He was still adding to his ratpack collection, and was in the process of painting his two vans silver from stem to stem (windows, tires and all!). The day before his death he bought a ’67 VW beetle, drove it off the lot despite severe cataracts and no driver’s license, and declared that he was going to paint the whole car orange.
Was Disteel insane? Without doubt he was as eccentric as a Black Lightning cam. His nature cycled from detached lo lucid daily, and he had a selective hearing impairment that conveniently tuned out probing questions. Like his packrat collecting urge, held in common with many who have tasted poverty, his obsessions can make sense after a certain amount of reflection. Insane? You decide.
In any case, 18 ancient motorcycles have been released from Disteel’s destructive spell. One auction buyer recently wrote me: “My ‘new’ Vincent touring Rapide, purchased at the auction, rose from the dead. All it took was oil and gas. It started on the second kick and idled right down to a steady beat. Of course it took some time for the dust and chicken feathers that shot out of the exhaust to settle.” Another purchaser reports he’s put over 2000 miles on his Disteel Vincent without a hint of trouble. The bike runs as if it were new, which, in a way, it is.
I suspect numbers of other “new” Vincents are still out there somewhere in Marin County, languishing in secret hideaways Disteel made sure it was unlikely anyone would ever find. If you’re out riding through the brown hills some summer day and come across a small building with no windows and no door….. Wilmot White

Comments

  1. small e says:

    Fascinating tale Phil..must get this piece to a mate who owns a brace of Vincents. I expect he’d know of Distell being a Vincent tragic. It’s so compelling isn’t it, buried treasure. Like the hoary old WLA Harley still in it’s crate leftover from WW2 chestnut..or the recent ‘buried’ Spitfires in Burma.
    You’ve only got to watch reality junk shows like American Pickers et al to see that eccentric collecting and hoarding is widespread, especially in the US where ‘stuff’ is their religion. But Distell was something else with his apparent desire to rid the world of Phil Irving’s incredible offspring. It’s be a worry if the Burma Spitfire bloke was on the warpath to find and destroy the machines that killed so many. (As for WLA Harleys I reserve my judgement!)
    If only his beloved son had been riding a Ural his life’s work might have been appreciated and productive.