Melbourne motorcycle zone: Elizabeth St
It was 1903, in a prosperous Melbourne, Australia, that brothers Alex and George Milledge decided to take the original vision of the city’s founder, John Batman, to the next level. The fraternal conversation went something like this: “It was all very well for Batman to declare that this was the place for a village. But I put it to you, bro, it’s not much of a village without a motor bike shop in Elizabeth Street!
“Couldn’t agree more, bro. And I reckon that the right place for the shop is near where those young bucks get together on Saturdays for a bit of a chinwag, before they tear off on their bikes, hell for leather, up Sydney Road.”
Thus, in furious agreement, the Milledge boys wasted no time in setting up their business in Elizabeth Street as Melbourne agents for Rex motorcycles, to compete with the handful of existing bike retailers in nearby streets. Little did they realize that theirs was the first step in establishing what would become a unique and enduring feature of Melbourne’s CBD. The Elizabeth Street motorcycle precinct would grow and thrive and go on to celebrate its centenary in 2003.
ELIZABETH STREET’S ‘TON-UP’ SHINDIG
That special Saturday in November, 11 years ago, attracted bikes and enthusiasts to Elizabeth Street in numbers not seen since the Toy Runs of the 1980s. Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, John So, a crucially important supporter of bike parking on footpaths, officiated at the opening. Among the displays were bikes from each of the 100 years. There were also race bikes representing all forms of motorcycle sport as well as military bikes, sidecars, scooters and memorabilia displays. Along with motorcycles of all ages there were motorcyclists of all ages.
A lot of the conversations were about the big changes over the decades in Elizabeth Street – in particular, the way it had become so lop-sided compared with its pre-’70s layout. The bike businesses once straddled both sides of Elizabeth Street between Lonsdale and Franklin streets. Now, with the exception of Motorcycle City near Franklin Street, the bike shops are all on the west side of the street in the CBD. The big shift across the road was due to the coming of Melbourne’s underground City Loop that was constructed in the ’70s.
WHERE WERE YOU WHEN…
The most impressive of the lost buildings was BSA House, a fine, three-storey example of the art deco style, purpose built by the Finlay brothers in the early 1940s. This lavish office and showroom complex on the corner of Little Lonsdale Street demonstrated the business’ optimism and determination to put the 1930s depression-era firmly behind it. The Finlay Brothers’ building remained a landmark feature of that area of the city until its demolition. Many of the punters at the centenerary celebrations were trying to remember where other businesses on the east side used to be: “I bought a Beemer from Pratts. Where were they?”
“I got my Jawa from them as well.”
“What about Disneys, the Norton people back in the ’50s?”
“Then there was Stewarts. They had Enfields and Ariels.” Although there’s an impressive number of businesses still lining the west side of Elizabeth Street, many are no longer there. Back in the day you went to Cottmans for Triumph and the pioneering Milledge Brothers, near Lonsdale Street, stocked a range of brands over the decades. There also was Weidens Leathers for your riding gear. More recent departures include Performance Bikes, Mayfair Honda, Motabitz, the Bike Barn, Cosway Kawasaki and Ray Quincey.
ELIZABETH STREET TODAY
For local motorcycling die-hards, the Elizabeth Street motorcycle precinct is doubly valuable. If you live or work anywhere near the city, it’s a fully functioning retail centre. You can buy a bike, either new or used. You can get your bike serviced. You can buy a set of plugs, or a new helmet. Come Saturday morning, however, it can also take on the role of London’s Ace Café. You can hang out and catch up. Have a drink. Check out the bikes. Listen to the Harleys roar away, hell for leather, toward Sydney Road (nope, things haven’t changed that much since 1903). Elizabeth Street is a place where you can just soak up the rich motorcycle atmosphere – almost literally on occasions when the sweet aroma of Castrol R wafts across the street from the exhaust of an enthusiast’s classic.
For visiting motorcyclists from interstate or overseas Elizabeth Street is right up there with the Great Ocean Road and the Phillip Island racetrack on the ‘must do’ list.
The kind of motorcycling critical mass that the Elizabeth Street precinct represents can produce pleasant surprises for the visitor. To do the photo shoot for this feature, lensman Russell Colvin and I agreed to meet outside the Peter Stevens dealership, a hard-to-miss landmark. We were there early watching each dealer’s staff wheeling display bikes into position on the footpath, forming an almost continuous line of bikes running along the pavement for the whole block.
Next door to ‘Stevos’ is Yamaha City. After a double-take moment, I realise that one of the guys wheeling out the ‘Team Blue’ bikes is the Australian dual superbike/supersport champion in 2004, Adam ‘Krusty’ Fergusson.
Adam, the renowned hard charger, has always been a larger-than-life character. He’s been with Yamaha City for about 18 months.
Although his severe limp is an obvious reminder of the injuries he suffered in a bad crash at Symmons Plains in 2007, his boyish enthusiasm for bikes and his competitive spirit remain undiminished. We get talking about the hot new 2015 R1 Yamaha.
“It’s 200 horsepower and 179kg,” says Adam. “That’s more horsepower than the BMW S 1000 RR,” he continues.
“And when it arrives, no one else here will get near it until I’ve ridden it.”
Part of the charm of Elizabeth Street is the range of businesses, small and large, and the way they complement each other. Mars Leathers, there since 1946, and Modak with its classic Brit bike spares, there since the 1930s, make an equal contribution to the major dealerships. Spot On’s huge range of used bikes balances the big numbers of new bikes stocked by its neighbours.
We decided to profile three businesses that, together, pretty-much encompass the range of scale and styles represented in Elizabeth Street.
PETER STEVENS/HARLEY-HEAVEN/CITY TRIUMPH
How could you not start by showcasing the Peter Stevens operation? Today’s Peter Stevens mega-stores are the culmination of decades of development and growth since the humble beginnings of the business in Warrigal Road in suburban Moorabbin. The Chiodo brothers have credited much of their success to providing the kind of service to motorcycle customers that was key to the success of their father’s Italian grocery store in North Melbourne.
Nowadays, that customer service is provided by an immaculately turned-out, friendly team in grand new settings on a scale that an old-school biker like me can have some difficulty engaging with. A Peter Stevens mega-dealership is more a motorcycle emporium than a bike shop. The Elizabeth Street store, for example, has an eye-watering range of more than 200 motorcycles, new and used, on the showroom floor on a typical day displayed in lavish style. Add to the floor-stock of bikes, apparel and accessory items valued at close to $2 million and you’re getting some idea of the scale of the business.
The distinctive black and orange livery of the KTM display dominates the northern end of the store. Moving along you see Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki occupying individual display areas. Then it’s the timeless city-chic style of the Vespa scooter range that catches your eye. ‘Stevos’ also caters well for the entry-level and budget market with a full range of the respected Korean Hyosung brand. Oh, and you can’t ignore the Latin über-sexiness of the MV Agusta models.
Dealer principal, Tom Busler (pictured, above left), explains that recent finessing and upgrading of the Peter Stevens dealerships has been influenced by best-practice in automotive retailing.
Just around the corner in A’Beckett Street, the Chiodos have restored a glorious building from the same era as the long-lost Finlay Brothers premises. Its eastern side is devoted to Harley Heaven with City Triumph occupying the western side. It displays bikes, apparel and accessories to the same lavish standard and on a similar scale to the Elizabeth Street store. Upstairs is an equally cutting-edge service centre, complete with dynamometer.
If you like doing business in a five-star setting, you need to check out the various Peter Stevens stores. Visit: www.PeterStevens.com.au
And now for something completely different. I try to never miss a visit to Modak Motorcycles when I’m in town, at least to survey its shop-window display. When you find yourself gazing at a pre-unit Triumph tank, a pair of Commando rear shocks, pillion-peg rubbers and 6V batteries with the proper black Vulcanite cases, it’s a tonic. Everything suddenly feels right with the world.
Inside Modak the limited lighting, bare floorboards and stock displayed in antique, glass-fronted book-cases reminds you of the look of an apothecary’s shop in a replica gold-mining village. This illusion is only challenged by the presence of a classic British motor bike in front of the counter and items like sump plugs, float bowls and twist-grip rubbers in the display cabinets, along with period bike-posters high on the walls.
David Beanham (top right) and his mother, Jean, have run Modak since David’s father Robert passed away some years ago. These two rusted-on enthusiasts know chapter and verse of spare parts for their beloved Brit bikes. Today’s typical imperative to go straight to the web for Brit bike parts can be a missed opportunity. Modak can often supply the part that day, cheaper than the landed cost of the overseas part you have to wait for. And you get to check it out before you buy. That was certainly my experience when I needed a new headlight rim to replace the B-grade one on my A65 BSA.
A few years back I was pleasantly surprised to find a gasket set for my WLA Harley at Modak. They had WLA pistons on display this time in standard bore and five-thou oversize. Modak has very limited stock of some new H-D and Indian parts from the early days.
When Robert Beanham bought Modak in 1955, he changed it from the wrecking business it had been to a new-parts stockist. In the halcyon days of the ’60s, Modak was also selling new bikes including Norton, AJS and Matchless. It even imported Maico and Greeves scramblers for a while.
Since the enforced move across the road in 1972, Modak has concentrated on supplying spares and accessories for classic British bikes. Visit: ModakMotorcycles.com.au
Here we’re looking at a business that sits between the two extremes represented by Peter Stevens and Modak. It’s what most of my mates would call a fair dinkum motorbike shop. It’s run by a couple of old-school traders, John Berburg and Craig Anear, both 35-year vets of the industry.
Motorcycle City stocks the Royal Enfield motorcycle range as well as the SYM scooters. There’s also a selection of used bikes on the floor.
SYM scooters are selling well for John and Craig. Apparently, the manufacturer builds 2500 scooters a day. Craig vouches for the quality and reliability of the SYM brand based on his extensive experience with Chinese products. A two-year warranty is applicable across the range. The SYMBA 100 step-thru from Taiwan comes with a four-year warranty.
Royal Enfield buyers are different from most motorcycle customers according to Craig, and a pleasure to deal with. “They have an almost child-like enthusiasm,” he says. “And once they’ve chosen their bike and are waiting to take delivery, they go into what I call sleepless-nights mode. They just can’t wait.”
The shelves are loaded with a good range of helmets and riding gear. Craig highlights a couple of features of the apparel side of the business. Firstly, their jackets and helmets are permanently discounted to compete effectively with internet prices while providing customers with all the traditional benefits of an in-store purchase. His other point is that Motorcycle City stocks Australian-made and owned Rossi Boots.
Motorcycle City’s best-selling accessory line is its range of topboxes that are popular with scooter riders.
Servicing of bikes and scooters is an important part of the business. Workers who commute to the city are in most cases able to drop their bikes off in the morning and pick them up at the end of the day.
Our visit to Motorcycle City wrapped up with me talking to Craig about a 1970 Yamaha R5 350 he’s restoring. Craig’s happy memories of racing one back in the day prompted him to buy a basket case R5 to bring it back to life.
WAIT, THERE’S MORE
We step away from Elizabeth Street-proper to look at the impressive Peter Stevens Harley Heaven and City Triumph showrooms in A’Beckett Street. Also away from the CBD bike precinct area are three other similarly impressive motorcycle showrooms. They’re actually still in Elizabeth Street, on its east side, in car dealership territory north of the Queen Victoria Market complex. These relative newcomers to Elizabeth Street are flagship Melbourne dealerships for the Indian, Victory and Ducati brands, all with lavishly fitted-out showrooms, full displays of their motorcycle ranges and rack upon rack of branded apparel.
The unique Elizabeth Street motorcycle precinct in Melbourne has something to suit all tastes and budgets. The scope and range of its businesses are as impressive as the richness of its heritage.