Readers know Brant Mackley as the second-generation art and antiques dealer from Hershey, Penn., who specializes in antique American Indian and world tribal art. His collection can be seen at such venues as the Antique American Indian Art Show in Santa Fe, N.M., and many others, as well, of course, in his own gallery, established in 1996, and today based in Hershey as well as historic Santa Fe. But, as the line from the song goes, there is another side of this life that Mackley is leading – and that is his collection of vintage, prewar, balloon tire bicycles. With riding season upon us, it seemed an opportune time to sit down with Mackley to find out more about this particular passion.
When did you start collecting?
I first started collecting arrowheads as a young child, I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. My parents had a bungalow on the Susquehanna River where we spent most weekends and entire summers. We would find these relics on the eroded shorelines. My parents also collected antiques and my mother became a dealer around 1975. I guess you could say collecting was “in my blood.”
With bicycles there have been two periods when I have had collections. In the mid-1990s I had a blossoming collection, eight or nine in total. At the same time, I was starting a family and decided to make a career in the antiques business. Sadly, I loaded the entire collection into my van and drove to New York and sold the group to Mike and Seth Fallon from Copake Auction.
My interest was renewed six years ago when I bought a 1936 Silver King aluminum frame built by the Monark Battery Company from Chicago. Today there are about 50 bicycles in the collection.
And why did you decide on antique/vintage bicycles?
My fascination with bicycles was sparked as a youth. Honestly, my parents feared I would never properly learn to ride a bicycle. As a youngster, I had training wheels far longer than my peers. Growing up in the antiques trade, my father would purchase unusual antique bicycles from time to time. We always had antique and vintage bikes around. As a young teen I fantasized about riding these ancient wheels, soon these thoughts became a reality.
We had a Racycle Pacemaker with a monster chain ring (62-tooth sprocket). It was over painted and was missing its badge, so it lingered in my mother’s shop for years. We lived on a farm that was at the bottom of three large hills; it was impossible for my younger brother and I to start pedaling this bike because of the high gear ratio. At some point we had an epiphany, if we pushed the bike to the top of hill (about a half a mile) we could maybe get the machine rolling. Anyway, it worked, and I have vivid memories of blasting down the hill faster than I have ever been on a bicycle! At the bottom I realized we never tested the brake, it barely worked! I had to make a hairpin turn on to the macadam road; luckily, no cars were coming from that direction or I might not have been here today. Sadly, a few weeks later someone came around my mom’s shop and bought the bike.
Another memory from that time was my dad buying a chainless (shaft drive) TOC “turn of the century” bicycle. He was so proud of this purchase and forbade my brother and I from riding it. The drive mechanism worked fine but was very stiff, likely from decades of sitting in a barn or shed without being serviced. Dad was so fearful we would try to ride the bicycle that he placed it on the second floor of my mother’s shop. Country summer boredom got the best of our youthful spirits; this time, my brother was to be the “official” test pilot. Again, we could not get the bike moving well on our gravel road so up the hill we went! It was a hot and balmy day and eagerness took hold, we only hiked about half way up the hill. I remember my brother Colby pedaling as fast as he could on the descent. About 300 yards into the ride the rear wheel locked up and he nearly went over the handlebars! The shaft drive mechanism had seized; we used all our youthful skills to fix the bicycle but failed. Sheepishly we returned the wheel to the second floor of the antiques shop and vowed secrecy of our exploits. Within minutes of my dad returning home from work, the “jig was up.” My dad raged furiously, asking what did we do with the bike? For years my brother and I thought my sister ratted us out; thinking back on it, likely there was a huge skid mark and a drag trail on the gravel road back to the shop that exposed our misdeed.
I believe the event (or bike) that permanently cemented my collecting interest occurred when I was 13 or 14 years old. My dad and I were at a Saturday auction in York, Penn., at the Springettsbury Fire Hall. Part of the offerings was the most beautiful bicycle I had ever seen. It was a badged Airflyte and had an extra set of curved rear fender stays that gave the bicycle the most stunning Art Deco streamline design. I told my dad I wanted to buy the bike; his response was: “no, you will hate it and it will be impossible to ride on the hills.” I did not care, I loved the machine’s form. I had started buying and selling antiques when I was 7 years old, and because of this, I had money to do as I pleased. That day I bid the Airflyte up to $275, it sold for $350 to the renowned antiques dealer, Pennsylvania/Kentucky rifle collector and bicycle collector Don Vaughn. It wasn’t until about six years ago when I started collecting bicycles again that I learned the bike was a 1936 Safety Streamline built by Huffman Mfr. Co. from Dayton, Ohio. Four years ago I bought the exact Streamline, but sadly Don had restored the bicycle; full restorations was accepted practice from that era.
Do you have a set list of criteria in your collecting methodology?
I look for visual icons; my interest is in the sculpture forms, historic rarity and originality. I have a handful of restored examples in the collection, but mostly now I am looking for ones in original paint. It is great to find a “catalog correct” example with all its rare parts, often specific to a certain model. These “time capsule” survivors are very scarce. Most bicycles have had parts, tires, saddles and other bits replaced through the years. A large part of my collecting efforts are finding these obscure parts to replace those that are out of period. The goal is to make every bicycle as correct and original as possible.
Where do you find them most – at auction, private sales?
Everywhere! Most come from private sales, often from established collectors, but also people who have bicycles that have been passed down in the family. Dealers are always offering their wares, and auctions as well.
How many are in your collection and how are they displayed?
I own around 50 complete bicycles, as I previously mentioned – actually more, but as a collector you occasionally will buy a bike just to acquire a rare part.
Our house in Santa Fe is perfect to display bicycles as there is a cathedral ceiling with lofts. I have 11 displayed in the primary living space where they look fabulous. Others are housed on the portal (covered porch), and the rest live in a studio; my partner Jennifer refers to this space as my museum.
What’s the oldest example in your collection?
The oldest is an 1893 Crescent “Rob Roy” hard tire safety bicycle. Most in the collection are wood rim TOC safety frame bikes up to prewar (World War II) balloon tire bikes. The latest in the collection is a carbon fiber racer I personally got from the Tour de France winner Greg Lemond.
A “holy grail” that’s out there waiting for you?
This is a tough question. If you asked me a couple years ago, I would have said the 1919 Harley Davidson Motorcyke owned by bicycle collecting legend Mel Short. Considered one of the finest original paint examples from the teens/20s period and the only Harley bicycle known with the accessory motorbike tank. Mike Wolfe from American Pickers tried to buy the bike during a visit the show made to Mel’s collection. Wolfe would not pay Mel’s price. A collector from Denver then agreed to buy the bicycle but reneged on the deal twice; this collector tied up the bike for about a year. I had an agreement with Mel that if the “mile high” collector passed, I would buy the bike. I was on “pins and needles” for months but got the call on Thanksgiving 2019 that the bike was mine.
I would love to have a George Hendee TOC period “Silver King” or “Indian” for the collection. Hendee was a famous high-wheel penny-farthing racer from Massachusetts who went into bicycle manufacturing business. Hendee is best known for Indian motorcycles. Actor Steve McQueen, “The King of Cool,” had a Hendee Silver King bicycle in his collection.
Do you enjoy riding (but maybe not on a vintage bike)?
I do enjoy riding, including many of my vintage bicycles. My current favorite “townie” bike is a 1999 Klein Mantra mountain bike.
Your other interest, of course, is Native American and ethnographic material. When is your next show devoted to that category?
The Santa Fe Virtual Tribal Fair in August is the next show I will be exhibiting. More information is available at www.santafevirtual.com.