Erwin “Smitty” Smith, a well-known motorcycle dealer, engine builder, restorer and race sponsor, became a leader of the vintage motorcycle movement that gained momentum in the 1980s. He became president of the Chief Blackhawk Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club.
Smith was born in Benton, Wisconsin in 1917. He bought his first motorcycle in 1927, a 1908 Flying Merkel for $5. He put countless miles on the bike on the gravel roads around his hometown. When he was 12, he and his family moved to the Quad Cities. Once there, he stepped up to a 1914 Thor two-cylinder.
“In those days, it wasn’t unusual for boys to have motorcycles,” Smith explained. “It was a rural farming area and I even bought my first car, a Model T Ford, when I was 10 years old.”
As a young man Smitty earned quite a reputation around the Quad Cities for being an excellent engine builder. He did a little racing himself, but was better known for building winning racing engines for many of the top area riders.
“I was happy just building the engines,” Smith said. “A dealer in Cedar Rapids, who was a friend of mine, by the name of George Clifford, talked me into opening my own dealership.”
While still in his early 20s, Smith opened an Indian motorcycle dealership in Rock Island, Ill., in 1940. He took a three-year hiatus from his dealership to serve his country in World War II from 1942 to 1945 in an armored division of the U.S. Army.
Upon his military discharge, he went through dealer training at the Indian headquarters in Springfield, Mass., and then reopened his dealership for business on Jan. 1, 1946, with just a single Indian motorcycle and a parts inventory worth $34.
When Indian began to fail in 1953, Smith took on the BSA and BMW motorcycle lines. He later sold Triumph and Kawasaki motorcycles as well.
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Smith built some of the fastest BSAs, and later Triumphs, in the Midwest. Over the years, famous motorcycle racers such as Ed Kretz, Sr., Bill Tuman, Joe Bissman, Mickey Green, Dave Camlin, Don Camlin, and his own brother, Lyle Smith, rode race bikes built or sponsored by Smitty.
“We always had a bunch of racers hanging around the shop,” Smith said. “The dealership even took on Montesa, and the reason was because they built a motor that was great for short-track racing.”
In the 1940s, Smith was a major part of a motorcycle club that was instrumental in getting the local school board to open the local Browning Field running track to motorcycle racing. From there, they went on to aid in the opening of the East Moline Football Field and Track to motorcycle racing, the old Route 6 Speedway in Coal Valley, and Shea Haines Track in Davenport, Iowa.
Smith is one of the early restorers of antique motorcycles. Over the years, he has showed his bikes at shows and races and that helped generate a great deal of interest in vintage motorcycle activities in his part of the country.
“I’ve restored a little bit of everything,” Smitty said. “Vincent, Indian, Triumph, BSA, Ariel and even some Harleys.”
He is especially known for restoring Indian Chiefs.
“I still had a lot of Indian parts left over from our days as a dealer, so I was able to come up with some pieces that were hard to find when working on some of these old motorcycles," Smith says. "I always had a soft spot in my heart for Indian.”
Smith became a president of the Blackhawk Chapter of Antique Motorcycle Club (AMC). For five years, he served on the Board of Directors of the National Antique Motorcycle meets in Davenport, Iowa.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995, Smith continued to ride his 1941 Indian 741 Scout at vintage meets.
“I like the three-day antique rides,” Smith said. “There’s generally a good group of riders that you can hang out and swap lies with.”
Motorcycling has been a life-long passion for Smith. He enjoys rebuilding antique motorcycles, and he and his wife, Pearl, remain in the motorcycle business in Rock Island. He will always be known for building great race bikes in the 1950s and ‘60s and later doing much to revive interest in old motorcycles, which helped spur the antique movement of the sport.
Smith passed away on March 6, 2011 at the Heartland Health Care Center in Moline, Ill. He was 93.