Billy Joel’s Gold Coast Motorcycle Emporium
BY PAM ARNOWITZ
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID NEEDLEMAN
Billy Joel with a custom-built bobber that started out as a 1999 Kawasaki W650
|A vintage Sinclair fuel pump|
The world may know him best as the Piano Man, but spend an afternoon with Billy Joel at his very own 20th Century Cycles in Oyster Bay, and it is quickly obvious that his passions stretch far beyond the confines of those 88 keys. As the six-time Grammy Award winner talks about this Harley-Davidson Sportster, that Ducati or this Triumph, it is easy to forget you are face-to-face with a music icon; you are entranced by the knowledge and humbled by the enthusiasm of an authentic motorcycle aficionado.
In a rather visible corner of Oyster Bay and open to the public, 20th Century Cycles is a “Big Boy toy store.” Originally a Ford dealership, the garage now houses more than 60 motorcycles, old and new, all plated and ready to ride. It is a place to see Joel’s remarkable collection of bikes and learn about their history; a place for riders to stop in and discuss their mutual fascination. Reminiscent of post-war America—vintage signs abound, and there’s a jukebox and a hint of motor oil in the air—it is the perfect place to hear the stories Joel has to share.
HAMPTONS: When did your passion for riding begin?
BILLY JOEL: It began with my bicycle. When I was a little boy, I used to take playing cards and attach them in the spokes with a clothing pin. The noise made it sound like I was riding a motorcycle. Thinking of that, a famous Norman Rockwell painting comes to mind. It was a picture of a group of young boys surrounding a bike, awestruck; that was me.
H: What was your first bike?
BJ: My first ride was on a neighbor’s BSA Lightning in 1965. He went off to war and entrusted me to take care of the bike while he was gone—that’s when I fell in love. He came back in the late ’60s and I bought my first used bike, a Triumph. It was a horrible mess, in bad shape and falling apart, but terrific fun. After that I left motor world for a bit and got heavy into my music. I moved back to Long Island in the late ’70s after a stint in California and I began to ride again.
H: Do you have a favorite era of bikes?
BJ: The ’30s through the ’50s was the height of automotive design. It was very American, heavily chromed with sexy, streamlined curves. They are not very fuel-efficient, but they are aesthetically pleasing. I like the history of bikes, I like to promote that; I am somewhat of a curator. I am not a fan of bikes covered in fiberglass that reach speeds of 250 mph. Growing up, fast for us was 100 mph. It’s not about how fast you go, it’s about how fast you feel like you are going. When you wind up an old bike, you may be going only 50 mph, but it feels like 100.
H: Do you compose while you ride?
BJ: I always have music running through my head. People point out that I am always whistling. Whether it is someone else’s song or one that I am composing, it is what I call my inner radio. There is always music going on—always.
H: What does it mean to you to have a shop now in Oyster Bay?
BJ: This space became available, and it made sense. This is not a business; it is called a collection, but it’s not really that either. I do not buy to collect; I buy to ride. Every bike is ready to roll. I ran out of room in my homes, and this is a perfect location. Motorcyclists are known to ride aimlessly on the North Shore on weekends—this is a destination, a pit stop. It is somewhat like a place in the UK, Ace Cafe London; it is a great stop-off for riders.
H: Have you ridden in other countries?
BJ: Lake Como is a great place to ride; it is home to Motto Guzzi, my favorite bikes. Everyone there drives like Mario Andretti—it takes some getting used to. They drive 85 to 125 mph, no limits. I was doing 60 and felt like I was going fast but was being passed by carloads of families. I eventually got up to speed. It was a thrill. I learned to appreciate Vespas in Europe; my girlfriend rides a Vespa. I have one with a sidecar for my dog—a pug—and she loves it.