Mike Wolfe’s story is one bound together with arcane tales of the hunt—a quest to locate and rescue some of the most legendary and long-forgotten relics of yesteryear, uncovering motorcycles and bicycles hidden in fields, cellars and rafters that were unknowingly designated as time capsules, their archaic badges and worn rubber waiting to be uncovered and itching to see the light of day—and potentially pavement—once again. Some of these motorcycles, such as the Harley-Davidsons and Indians, are legends among the antique and vintage motorcycle-collector community, existing as hallowed machines that give a reason for the hunt and an excuse for Wolfe to feed his obsession with the lost and obscure.
What has evolved from one curious young child roaming the back alleys of Bettendorf, Iowa, into a massive collection of some of the world’s rarest and most highly sought-after motorcycles, has now turned into a once-in-a-lifetime offering christened The As Found Collection, an assemblage containing more than 70 two-wheeled icons, all from Mike Wolfe’s private collection and, for the very first time, prepared to impress a new set of owners as they cross the auction block in Las Vegas at Mecum’s 32nd annual Vintage & Antique Motorcycle Auction January 24-28.
Unlike many who absorbed their motorcycling interests from outside influences such as a family member or a nearby whirring racetrack, creator and star of the TV show “American Pickers” Mike Wolfe said his own attraction to the hobby was born strictly out of curiosity and the possession of an unquenched thirst for the hidden jewels that await. Raised in Bettendorf, Iowa, Wolfe found the path to his future fate at just four years old while strolling down alleyways—a habit that provided a glimpse into a backroads type of world of endless picking possibilities and a place where his eye for relics first magnified the potential that abandoned items presented.
The young Wolfe fell in love with tossed “junk” one day while walking to school, stumbling upon an old bicycle someone had carelessly abandoned. “I saw older kids riding by the house, but my family could never afford one, and then I found that bike. It was an adult bike,” Wolfe laughed. “I could barely even get on the thing, but I fell in love with it. It expanded my world. I couldn’t believe someone would throw it out,” Wolfe said, reminiscing on a moment that would define the very future of his picking explorations.
Mike Wolfe’s “As Found Collection” of motorcycles hits the auction block in Las Vegas at Mecum’s 32nd annual Vintage & Antique Motorcycle Auction, January 24-28. Photos and detailed descriptions are available at Mecum.com
While the intrigued child was caught like a shoelace on a shift lever for the self-propelled transportation, he’d find every reason to continue combing through dumpsters in search of the next big discovery. “Once, I found a huge box of STP stickers. Stickers are like money when you’re a kid—you’d trade them for this or that. At the time, I had no idea what STP was. I just knew that the big box was gold.”
As Wolfe grew older, he found himself fortunate enough to frequent the Davenport motorcycle swap meets, where he sought out vintage and antique bicycles. “I looked for bikes and became fascinated by motorcycles,” Wolfe recalled, noticing the passion people had for the old chariots and soon finding his own appreciation for early pedal-start and belt-drive motorcycles. “When you go to meets, you’re captivated by everything. The first old bike I ever saw was at the swap meet; I was 22. It was a Harley RL 45. I stared at it in amazement. From then on, I always looked at antique motorcycles as art in motion. I was hooked.”
With Wolfe developing a knack for the hunt and prioritizing research to educate himself on the different manufacturers and models, he realized the strong connection between bicycles and motorcycles, relying on mentors around Davenport to answer any moto-related questions. Wolfe eventually bought his first antique collector motorcycle, a 1948 Indian Chief that he considered a “basket case.”
“Antique motorcycles are extremely hard to find. If I found a frame or handlebars, I was beyond excited and dreamed of finishing the ’48,” he said. “I accumulated parts, but I couldn’t afford to finish it, so I sold it to someone who could bring it back. Swap meets were like school for me; it was hands-on learning.”
With his new passion ignited, Wolfe dove headfirst into the motorcycle-collecting hobby, adoring the “as found” stuff—glorifying moments when he’d witness a crowd of enthusiasts watching as someone pulled a motorcycle out of a barn with years of dust covering the bike, acting as a blanket for preservation, onlookers in awe witnessing the engine run for the first time in decades.
Regardless of the “American Pickers” TV show, Wolfe always bought anything he could find when it came to antique motorcycles, running ads in small-time newspapers looking for a lead. “I’ve been fortunate to come across a lot of bikes because I was relentless,” he said. “I’d spend two weeks on the East Coast just driving around looking for bikes. I spent days looking for an old Whizzer down random roads because a guy mentioned he thought he saw one but couldn’t remember where. For a long time, I located bikes for John Parham and the National Motorcycle Museum. My obsession is reflective of the collection itself.”
It’s true. The As Found Collection features heroes of the motorcycle industry, bikes that have survived the test of time and remain in the state in which they were originally discovered by Wolfe.
“I’ve been collecting motorcycles for 35 years, and I’ve realized when something is untouched, it leaves a longer-lasting mark,” he said. “I can look at a bike and imagine its history that way. The scars, scrapes and rust tell its story. When I discovered it, I felt more connected to the person, place and time. Leaving something as found bookmarks it forever in a place and time. We don’t even clean them when they’re discovered. Maybe some rewiring and mechanical work to get them running. We leave it just the way it was when found.”
Some of these as-found motorcycles include gems such as multiple 1930s-’40s Indian Fours, 1936-37 Harley-Davidson Knuckleheads, Panheads, Excelsiors, a 1909 Yale Single, a historic olive drab 1919 Indian Military Twin, early Indian Chiefs and many other highly prized glories that very rarely become publicly available—like Wolfe’s 1921 Harley-Davidson JD with Sidecar—all waiting patiently for new owners and wearing the patina that true collectors spend years hunting and acquiring.
“I’ve never cleaned anything so that I can relive that moment of finding them where they’ve been sitting for the past 50 or 75 years in an old cellar or barn. All these bikes were someone else’s dream. They made the bike their own, adding accessories or changing the seat. When I look at this stuff, I always romanticize who owned it before me and what their life was like. That’s why I like to keep it as it is,” Wolfe said, with a humble nod to those motorcycle enthusiasts that came before him.
As for the group’s upcoming offering at auction, Wolfe said that choosing Mecum for The As Found Collection was an easy call, noting how he respected founder Dana Mecum’s story of making something out of nothing—a feat that mimics Wolfe’s own success in the world of picking and collecting. When asked why it was time for a portion of his collection to cross the auction block, Wolfe detailed his reasoning based on current priorities.
“I’ve put in a lot of miles, time and leads for this collection. These are the fruits of my labor for 35 years, and it’s the first time I’ll be selling from my private collection. My focus has changed to pre-1915 American motorcycles. I’m currently looking for a Curtiss, Harley Strap Tank, early Thors—that’s the stuff that brings me the most joy and what I’m still fascinated with. They bring me back to that connection at the swap field in Davenport.”
Wolfe said he hopes these bikes go to homes that appreciate them for what they are—treasures resilient to time and that still maintain the captivating characteristics only years of hiding can create.
“I want to see people enjoy these bikes, get them back on the road, just a mechanical restoration. Bring it back into the hobby where everyone can learn and appreciate it,” Wolfe said.
For any amateurs looking to get into collecting, Wolfe has some straightforward advice to offer: “Buy what you can afford and like. Don’t step over a bike just because it’s not exactly what you’re looking for. Hone in on what you truly love.”
This story first appeared in MECUM MAGAZINE, published by Mecum Auctions, the world leader in collector car, vintage and antique motorcycles, and road art sales. The article is used with permission. For more information on Mecum, go to mecum.com