Motorcycles are and have been inherently cool since their conception, even elevated to works of art. They kind of have to be. They are horrible machines. Extremely uncomfortable, requiring constant maintenance, and not so much a question of if you are going to die on one, but when. They are extremely dangerous, and considering the fact that this is the only vehicle where you become the fuselage and ride the engine, they have earned the title “death trap”.
That all said they are extremely cool. What is cool exactly? It can be hard to define but to me cool is something that exists for the pure pleasure of existing. A little Greek philosopher having a wee too much to drink perhaps, but it is an illusive term and that I suppose is what makes cool, cool. It’s hard to put your finger on it. Well, when I heard about Keith Hale and his 1974 Ducati 750ss only one word came to mind. Cool.
Let’s wind it back. Ducati wins 1st and 2nd place at Imola in 1972. This is the Grand Prix or the Daytona 500 of moto racing you see, and it’s a huge deal. The bike they won on, a 750ss, has amazing engineering and is clearly technologically superior to it’s competitors. What it is also, is the most strikingly beautiful bike ever built. A sunset green frame supporting a warm, silver tank in the shape of a bullet you can ride. It is sublime and is known as the most beautiful bike, if not machine, ever produced.
1974: Ducati makes 401 of these stunners and sells them to the public with almost no modification from their race specs. It is the first time a real race bike is available to the public and it causes a sensation. Only 88 make their way overseas, and only one enchanted a very young Keith Hale in northern California.
Keith heard the bike before he saw it and fell in love on sound. If you’ve ever heard one in the wild you would understand why. A mechanical symphony, the 750ss is run by a desmodromic valve system. What that means is the motor’s motion drives the valves instead of springs which is how most motors actuate. The way this is done is with a tower of precision machined gears and bevels that when running at 9000 RPM spinning faster then the earth rotates it makes a heavenly sound.
But then you see it and you’re done for.
Keith had to have it. He was just a kid from a big family that moved a lot and worked in a factory. So he scraped together as much money as he could, and begged the unwilling old man who purchased the bike from the factory to sell it to him for 3,200 bucks. He promised the old man he would race it and ride it everyday. Keith kept his promise in a most unusual way.
On a bike that was meant to do a 1/4 mile at a time, Keith did something that no one had ever, or has ever since, done. He put a ridiculous 100k+ miles on a track bike, riding it not just in a loop, but around the country, to work, to weddings and funerals, to the beach and the mountains. This race bike became an extension of Keith and their personalities merged over the 50 years he owned and maintained his machine.
And maintained is the key word.
Every bike needs constant attention. Some less than others. A Ducati, especially a desmodromic 750ss needs perhaps the most attention. It is the persian cat of bikes, and no ordinary diet will do. Keith had to learn this bike as if he were the engineer who built it and perhaps the physicist that defined relativity as well. These bikes were not meant to do a fraction of the milage that he put on this machine, but here it is, with so many miles on it that the speedometer eventually just gave up. It was the only part that Keith neglected to fix.
This story to me is cool because here is a person that does one thing and learns to do it perfect for the sake of knowing how to do something perfect. It wasn’t his career to be a racer, or mechanic, or engineer; Keith is a teacher, humble and lovely, soft spoken and artistic. His drive to maintain this bike came out of love, pure love of an object. He gave it value beyond it’s worth with a lifetime of memories marinating this aged piece of automotive history. He has also done the impossible; proven that these bike have been engineered to perfection, perhaps the only tested example that a bike’s engine simply will not fail, ever.
While this is a story about a machine, it has a very human center to it. Keith, after a lifetime of being defined by his bike, has to face the harsh reality of his mortality. There is no simple way to say this, Keith is getting old. A race bike is hard to ride for someone in their physical prime, and while Keith has maintained his body as well as his machine, and somehow eluded death which comes on tap with motorcycle riding, realizes that the bike he loves isn’t fitting in his life like it used to. Not that he loves it less, but realizes that it’s not being used in the same glory as it used to. Perhaps it is time to part ways with her, to pass her story onto the next keeper, who will love her in a different but same intense way.
Keith was an educator. He taught children most of his life, dedicated to making young people better at who they are and giving them purpose and direction in life. Now, when most people retire, Keith finds himself unable to stop working; there is no pension for school teachers in his district and requires a steady stream of income even living a humble life as he does. It would seem that he would have to spend his last days expiring in some random job that would have him, just to keep money coming in for increasing medical bills and daily living.
Here comes the twist.
What’s truly cool about this story is the because Keith has taken such exceptional care of his machine, has dedicated his life to keeping it not just in perfect condition but to proving its engineering superiority through miles of testing, he is now able to sell his beloved machine for a sweet little nest egg that will keep him comfortably retired well into his later life.
The machine he took care of his entire life now takes care of him for the rest of his life.
If you needed a more Disney ending for adults I don’t know where you would find it. It’s a lovely story, only made more unbelievable because it is in fact real. Keith is really a nice guy, a teacher with a heart of gold, and his motorcycle really is one of a kind and perhaps the most beautiful machine I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of story that transcends motorcycle culture and enters the kingdom of human existence, illustrating the beautiful ballance that happens when we dedicate our life to something for the sheer pleasure of the act of doing it. It’s a beautiful mix between wabi-sabi and Kaisen, and just knowing about it puts a smile on my face a mile wide.
Which is exactly what happened when Keith heard his bike start up for the very first time.
For me, my Ducati 750ss is documentary. It’s these stories that I get to share, and these amazing people I get to meet. I don’t make them because someone pays me, the payment is in the process, and if you asked me honestly I would tell you that becoming a filmmaker was my hack to life. I get to be part of these amazing people’s lives simply because I know how to put together a film. It’s an honor to tell these stories, and hope you enjoy them too.
I think you do, because the story without any impetus seemed to find its way to the top of the news cycle. I love hearing what other’s think about not just my films, but the subjects of my films. Some of my favorites were here on the Vintagent, here on Iron and Air, and on Motorcycle.com … but this interview I did for Taylor Brown over on Bike Bound is a special look a little deeper in what this film actually means to me.
Of course we must not forget that while this is a truly beautiful story, it is afterall, just a motorcycle. It’s something that I think Keith mitigates exceptionally well in his life, the balance between putting improtance on an object, and always remembering it is just a thing. But what a beautiful thing it is, and in so … well, we had to have a little fun with it. May I introduce you to All The Pretty Things:
This was a little fun film we put together to celebrate, well, all the pretty things we love. In it you’ll find a dozen cherished items, from handcrafted Hedon helmets, to museum worthy glassware and even our favorite recipe for the perfect Negroni. Add in a dash of star studded cast of our favorite people and you can get a sense of how easy it is to fall in love with this bike, how inspirational it can be.
This was a divine experience for me, to meet Keith, explore his world, and even get to play in it for a while in my own way. The older I get the more I feel burdened by things, the more I realize how materialistic we are, and don’t get me wrong, I love my pretty things, but it’s nice to see someone truly own something, rather then just having something, you know what I mean?
You can find out more about this amazing machine and amazing person at www.ducati750ss.com
Oh, because you asked … here are all the pretty things;)
All The Pretty Things:
Helmets: Hedon Bespoke Helmets https://hedon.com/
Motorcycle: Ducati 750ss www.motoborgotaro.com
Mamiya 23: www.vintagecameraquest.com
Pink Whip: James Marsh www.instagram.com/jamesthomasmarsh/
Eyewear: Tom Ford https://www.tomford.com/eyewear/men/sunglasses/
Sandwitch: Canter’s Deli http://www.cantersdeli.com/
Cellphone: Samsung Ultra s21 https://www.samsung.com/us/smartphones/galaxy-s21-ultra-5g/
Menswear: Michael Andrews Bespoke https://www.michaelandrews.com/
Timepiece: Rolex of Grey and Patina https://greyandpatina.com/
Switchblade: AGA Campolin http://www.agacampolin.com/
Coin: The Explorer’s Club https://www.explorers.org/
Camera Holster: Hold Fast https://holdfastgear.com/
Gloves: Shinola https://www.shinolahotel.com/
Motorcycle: Royal Enfield Himalayan https://www.royalenfield.com/
Boots: Justin https://www.justinboots.com/en-US Leather
Case: Vintage Stanley https://kevinscatalog.com/
Hat: Goorin Bros https://www.goorin.com/
Glassware: Maximillian Elcke https://maxidnystore.com/
Future Gin https://www.futuregin.com/
Tempis Fugit: https://www.tempusfugitspirits.com/
Produced by: One Man One Camera