Riders on the storm

This weekend, motorcycle aficionados from around the country will descend on a two-acre lot on East Commerce to pick through 22,000 square feet of fully stocked warehouse space and a large yard strewn with disabled choppers. On the sales block: 83 starter solenoids, 271 foot pegs, 489 clutch brake levers, and more than 1,000 used motorcycles.

For four decades, a San Antonio man named Abraham Fortune collected motorcycles and motorcycle parts behind his rustic storefront, never selling, never restoring, never repairing, accumulating vast piles of two-wheel transportation equipment. At the heart of the stockpiles are more than 1,000 complete motorcycles – the new owner, Tom Freeland, stopped counting at some point. There are rare bikes and not-so-rare. A few look like they would run, many are covered in thick layers of rust and grime.

Scores of gasoline tanks, frames, and exhaust systems hang side-by-side on the walls and from inky rafters like so many wasted bodies. It is, in effect, a grim slaughterhouse for iron horses, littered throughout with corpses and myriad parts. Trails wend through the leaden heaps and one expects mechanical rats to dart out underfoot at any moment, perhaps dragging faded cables in tow. In the yard, the mounds have risen amid weeds and wildflowers; one tree has grown up through the frame of a toppled bike.

Hidden gems include the Suzuki 1975RE5, a rare rotary-engine bike in production for a few years only, and the Honda CB750 legendary “sandcast” model, manufactured until September 1969. The motorcycle with a tree growing through it is a Yamaha YZ450.

Freeland and his fiance Karen Kruzel acquired this inventory four years ago for the sum of $900,000. A team of employees has been sorting the piles, organizing the goods after a fashion, and uncovering old, rare bikes.

“You have to see beyond the dirt and the rust to see the potential, but that’s what I see, I see the potential,” says Freeland.

The components alone number nearly half-a-million, many still unused and in their original boxes. Parts sales and service revenue topped out at $100,000 in the first year, and only about 5 percent of sheer physical volume has been sold. Now Tom and Karen want to be rid of the ponderous agglomeration so they can open a smaller, more modern repair shop in another San Antonio location, focused on Japanese bikes from the 1970s and 1980s. And so the acquisitive public finally gets a shot at the collection.

What inspired the construction of this highly unusual bike madhouse? The Fortune legacy is murky at best. Local lore has it that his vast motorcycle stable was nothing more than a sad symptom of a mysophobic mechanic’s hoarding disorder: Abe compulsively collected choppers, wheeling them deep into one of the cavernous rooms, and thrusting them onto piles to sit and oxidize. During periods of recession, Abe scoured failing local shops, buying up fire-sale inventories of spare parts that would return to 3011 E. Commerce to take their place on towering metal shelving units. There they would sit and gather dust. Mr. Fortune lived in one of the compound’s rooms.

One man that frequented the business before Freeland assumed control described an erratic and dangerous customer-service philosophy to the Current: Quotidian arguments over sticker price would regularly spin out into threats to produce a firearm and settle client complaints with Abe Fortune expediency.

These were more than idle threats. On one occasion, a man was indeed shot, apparently in the back. Moreover, Fortune, once known as Michael Paprskar, was convicted in 1970 of premeditated murder for the fatal shooting of two adults and a child and assessed the death penalty. The legal autodidact later overturned the capital punishment sentence by disputing in the courts evidence gathered during a warrantless search, but he did eventually serve time for two counts of murder.

Freeland knew none of this when he initially learned of the massive warehouse compound and its conjoined business. But it didn’t take long to realize this would be no ordinary sale. Fortune demanded a cash sum of $10,000 to unseal the gaping galvanized steel buildings and let Freeland simply look around. He gave no guarantee it would ever be returned.

“I knew this would be the best decision of my life, or the worst decision of my life,” Freeland said. Already, he had decided to renounce his comfortable career as a Fortune 500 executive and gamble his life savings on a motorcycle-service business. “When you look at stuff like that,” he waves his arm at a pile of partially cannibalized bikes, “most people don’t see motorcycles. I looked at that, and I saw value. It was the best decision I ever made.” •

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