(Note: This piece was written in advance of an auction of Harley-Davidson items which took place last Saturday, June 9. Many FOCUS readers love Harleys, so here’s a great story about ‘em!)
Lincoln, NE (AP) – Before he and his wife sold their sprawling store and retired three months ago, Dave Fischer spent more than three decades selling Harley-Davidsons.
But the former co-owner of Frontier Harley was also buying his own motorcycles, scouring the country for rare, valuable and simply strange Harley makes and models.
He ended up with a museum-quality collection, so that’s what he built: a Harley history museum on the second floor of their dealership.
It meant something to him, sharing his showpieces with his customers.
“I’m not the guy who wants to go to the biker bar and just talk about what I own,’’ he said. “It was important to me for them to see it.’’
Then, in March, they couldn’t. His personal collection wasn’t part of the sale to H&H Automotive Group of Omaha, so all of the bikes were wheeled to a storage shed next door. The thousands of rare and spare parts, vintage signs and collectibles were crated and forklifted onto shelves, out of public view.
The Lincoln Journal Star reports that they’ll make a brief reappearance this month, and then they’ll be gone for good: Fischer is selling the contents of his museum at an auction that is expected to draw hundreds of bidders to Frontier Harley.
Potential buyers from Japan, Switzerland and South Africa have expressed interest, and Fischer expects a strong local crowd. He was in the business long enough that he’s sure every biker in Nebraska, and many in Iowa and Kansas, have heard about the sale.
Photo: Dave Fischer with some of his collection, pre-auction
“It’s bringing in a lot of interest,’’ said Glenn Bator of Bator International, which specializes in selling classic motorcycles. “I would say the caliber of what Dave has is very high, and there are certain motorcycles he has that are very rare.’’
Fischer will keep four bikes, but the rest of his collection – 33 motorcycles spanning more than 70 years and all the parts and memorabilia – will scatter.
So will his so-called anomalies, like his Harley snowmobiles and his Harley scooter and his Harley bicycles and his Harley golf cart and the rarest of them all – his 15-foot Harley boat.
It hasn’t been easy, but he’s ready to see his collection go.
“When we pulled it out of the museum, it was hard. Every piece had a story.’’
Fischer had a secret past he didn’t disclose to many of his biker friends: He was a lawyer.
He worked for the Nebraska Legislature and the U.S. Senate and, later, Union Pacific. He was living and practicing in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s when he decided to make a change.
“I was just bullheaded enough,’’ he said. “I wanted to be my own boss, I wanted to own my own business. And I thought, it should be something that I know and enjoy.’’
At the time, Lincoln had been without a Harley dealership for two years, and he convinced the company to let him take the territory.
“I had no business background. I had never taken a business class. If they wouldn’t have been desperate, they wouldn’t have given me the dealership.’’
He and Deb opened Frontier Harley-Davidson in 1987 at 27th Street and Cornhusker Highway, selling and servicing bikes in a 15,000-square-foot store. They nearly tripled their space in 2006, when they built their new shop and museum on West O Street.
Deb Fischer handled most of the business side – the books and the personnel and the problems. “And I got to do the fun stuff,’’ Dave Fischer said.
He didn’t think he’d ever retire, but when they explored the possibility last year, H&H Automotive’s interest and eventual offer was too good to ignore. More importantly, they felt they were leaving their store and its employees in good hands, he said.
“We just kind of stuck our toes in the market, and we caught a trophy bass,’’ he said. “I woke up one day and found myself retired.’’
But the deal left him with no place to share his collection. And his pieces deserve more than a storage shed. Some of the old bikes are still new, rarely ridden. Others have been restored. All of them run. Keeping them that way takes work.
“You can only ride so many bikes. You can only maintain so many,’’ he said. “I don’t want to spend my retirement working on bikes.’’
When Fischer decided to sell his collection, he hired Bator, who flew to Lincoln and spent a full day examining the bikes. Then he sat down with Fischer and told him how to make the most money.
Let his company consign them. Or run them through a big sale in Las Vegas. Both would attract deeper pockets, and Fischer would likely make $100,000 more than at auction in Lincoln.
It’s not all about the money, Fischer told him. He wanted the bikes to sell at Frontier.
“Basically, he wanted to have a nice local auction, have all of his buddies around him, watching all of his babies go to new owners.’’
Bator has come to see the upcoming sale as a farewell party for Dave and Deb Fischer after 31 years in the business.
“It gives them the final departure from their place in the Harley-Davidson world.’’
Dave Fischer wasn’t a random Harley hoarder. He had a plan as a collector, and he stuck to it. Harley-Davidson was founded in 1903, so he narrowed his focus to bikes built in years that ended in three.
Photo: Fischer with a 1973 Electra Glide, replete with 8 track player
“That was the framework,’’ he said. “That was the backbone.’’
His oldest is a 1933, his newest, 2003, and he owns Harleys from every decade in between.
He spent a decade trying to buy a 1913 from a Canadian collector, and had even reached a deal. Then the seller demanded cash.
“I said, `Bill, I’m not going to cross the Canadian border with 75,000 U.S. dollars.’’
The negotiations continued for years until Fischer walked away. The last he heard, that same bike had sold for $250,000.
He branched out from his framework. For the company’s key anniversaries – its 50th and 100th – he collected one bike from every model family. So he owns seven built in 2003 and three from 1954 (the company officially marked its 50th anniversary a year late).
He also hunted rare Harley bikes and the company’s other vehicles – bicycles, scooters, golf carts, snowmobiles and the rare boat.
He found a 1920 bicycle at a ranch sale in Hooker County; the seller gave him a photo of her grandfather as a young boy, posing with his new bike.
He found the boat in a Wisconsin barn. Harley-Davidson had bought the Tomahawk Boat Co. in the 1960s because it needed a fiberglass factory to build fairings, saddlebags, sidecars and other motorcycle accessories.
But it sold Harley boats for a few years. Fischer bought his 20 years ago from a widow, who said her husband bought it, put it in the barn and died before he could use it.
When his auctioneer told him a bidder in Japan is interested in the boat, he said: “You got to tell him to not ever put it in the water. It’s too nice to get wet.’’
A Swiss buyer is interested in his 1972 Harley Shortster, the company’s first and last attempt at a mini-bike. It abandoned production after one year.
Fischer can tell each bike’s story. The 1958 three-wheeled Servi-Car used by Lincoln meter maids. The 1973 Electra Glide, the Cadillac of bikes, with every available option, including a cigarette lighter and eight-track player.
The 1999 off-road MT500, built for the first Gulf War but ultimately unnecessary, because the battle ended before it could be useful.
There’s the first year of the Screamin’ Eagle, the trio of 50th anniversary bikes – painted more “puke yellow’’ than golden anniversary – and his rarest motorcycle, a 1943 Knucklehead.
That year, Harley-Davidson devoted its production to the military, building bikes for World War II, and few were sold domestically. The Knucklehead was one of just dozens made, and Fischer doesn’t know of any others that exist. That could be a six-figure bike, he said.
But, really, he doesn’t know what to expect when bidding starts. He knows what it’s like to be a buyer who doesn’t want to make the long drive home with an empty trailer. Or what can happen when two bidders pursue the same obscure item.
He’ll find out soon.
“I used to tell Deb that when I die, you’re going to have a hell of an auction,’’ he said. “Now here’s my chance to prove it, but I don’t have to die.’’
(All photos by Eric Gregory, Journal-Star.)
Top photo: A 1943 H-D EL Knucklehead, the rarest bike Fischer owned