Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles

Geert Versleyen (left) and Thys Lempens are the two arch-enthusiasts behind Yesterdays

Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles have become a fixture on the back cover of The Classic MotorCycle, their simple, clear advert featuring a dozen delectable and desirable classics. Last month, we had a cammy Square Four, Model 90 Sunbeam, Norton Inter, veteran Indian V-twin, a Reading Standard among the chosen 12 – we’d all like any of those five  (or preferably all…) in our shed, or any of the other seven as well, come to that. Disclosing the company is based in Nederweert, Holland, the advert also says Yesterdays have over 100 machines for sale and a visit to their website (www.yesterdays.nl) will provide details of some of the other classics available. But that’s not like going there in person and seeing the motorcycles first hand – so that’s what we decided to do.

After an overnighter on the Hull-Rotterdam ferry, we headed for Nederweert, a town just over 100 miles south-east of Rotterdam. Dutch roads being what they are – ie good – it was a stress-free journey and we arrived at 11am, to be greeted by the men behind the name, Geert Versleyen and Thys Lempens. The genial pair welcomed us and guided into their rather unremarkable looking, grey-finished unit…but what a difference once inside. We stepped into a softly lit room, lined front to back with classic motorcycles around the periphery, plus more in the centre. The walls are adorned with all sorts of lovely posters and automobilia, while there are cabinets full of fascinating artefacts and light supplied by old-style streetlamps, with even flooring carefully chosen.

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Yesterdays Antique MotorcyclesAs Geert and Thys led us through the building, straightaway I started spotting things – a Henderson here, a veteran Peugeot there, an SS100 over the other side, a cammy Velo, a Series A Comet… to me, it was all terribly exciting and I kept looking round corners and into other rooms, spotting more and more lovely motorcycles. However, first it was time for a coffee in Possibly The Best Coffee Shop in the World, to borrow from the Carlsberg advert…on a raised dais at one end of the shop, Geert and Thys have created a little area where it’s possible to sit around one of the three or four tables, have a cup of very decent coffee and survey all in front, which included immediately ahead an American-made Militaire – I’d never seen one of the those in the metal before.

Though I was eager (perhaps even over eager!) to get sniffing about all the lovely motorcycles (“Is that a K7 or a K10?” I asked Thys as I spotted a flat tank cammy Ajay from my coffee-shop seat, “Is that a Reading Standard?” “What’s that over there? A Harley Servicar?” and so on…kid in a sweet shop springs to mind…) first of all it was only fair to get a bit of background to the business.

It all started in 1980, when 20 year motor mechanic Thys Lempens bought his first old motorcycle, a 1930 side-valve Magnat Debon.

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Yesterdays Antique MotorcyclesThys joined the Dutch vintage club and published a call for help with his machine in the club’s journal. The first offer of assistance came from Geert Versleyen, who lived 20 miles away. Geert – about 10 years older than Thys – had been a member of the club for several years, already owning several interesting old machines, including a self-restored 1910 FN, acquired at a Belgian flea market. Geert, who had trained as a car body repairer, also used a WWII-period Indian as his daily transport. Thys and Geert forged an immediate friendship and started to buy and sell machines on a modest scale from the chicken shed behind Thys’ parents farm, ostensibly to allow them to enhance their own collections.

Around 1992, Yesterdays was formed (“It just happened, rather than was decided” says Thys), when the partners still had full-time jobs, though by the mid 1990s both were working at their regular employment part-time. In 1997 they took an important decision and decided to invest time and effort in putting together something significant for a new and increasing medium – the internet. It was to go on to prove an important decision.

Yesterdays Antique MotorcyclesThe chicken shack had by now been rebuilt and developed but it was clear more space was required and in 2002 a suitable place was found, with 13,000sq ft (1200sq m) at their disposal. Then began the task of getting what they wanted…a year’s hard graft and the end result was something near to their vision – a museum-like setting from which to run the business, with room for around 125 motorcycles, plus spacious workshops, with second-hand tools. Says Geert, “We need a lathe, but not necessarily a brand new one!” Full restorations are not undertaken, simply ‘fettling’ – perhaps carbs will be stripped and cleaned, a mag rebuilt and so on and most of the bikes sold are in running condition.               

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In the workshop, two experienced part-timers (Herman and Theo) take care of business. Both now retired from their careers, Theo was actually Thys’ car mechanics teacher at college about 35 years ago, while Herman used to own a fork lift business, which he’s sold. They love coming in and getting their hands dirty, playing with the old bikes. It all seems fairly relaxed – on the day of our visit Herman wasn’t there though it seems he’d been expected. Later, as we enjoyed lunch, sat outside a café in Nerweert town centre, he cycled by – some light-hearted banter ensued between ‘employer’ and ‘employee’ and it seemed he’d be in later!

Yesterdays Antique MotorcyclesAn interesting aspect is that although the showrooms are museum quality, they are not open to the public. Basically, the Yesterdays’ guys don’t want people just turning up and wandering about amid a huge amount of money’s worth of old motorcycles. This is also the thought behind the unprepossessing exterior to the building complex – those who know where the guys are, know, while those who don’t, won’t suspect. It’s not as if Geert and Thys are unwelcoming – indeed, far from it, they’re perfect and genial hosts and happy to talk old motorcycles, it’s just they only want to talk the talk with people who are genuine, not just chance daytrippers. Which is fair enough.

Despite all that, while we were there, plenty of visitors seemed to come and go, though they all seemed to be treated more as friends than customers. A German had driven over with his car and trailer – in fact, his car was a special edition Harley-Davidson Chrysler, so it was no surprise to see he’d come to buy a Harley. Loaded up was a rather fabulous 1938 Knucklehead, which the man had come to see and try 14 days before. He was a completely new customer and while Yesterdays has plenty of those, there’s also a healthy number of returnees. Says Geert; “We’ve some regular customers who come back time and again – some have bought more than 20 or 30 bikes from us, so we treat them very well!” he laughed. One of the best customers is an American who has bought over 20 motorcycles from Yesterdays, but never been to Holland, though Geert has been over to the States a couple of times to see him. Geert; “We swap jokes and cat stories regularly!”   

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Yesterdays Antique MotorcyclesSometimes the partners will sell a motorcycle, only for the owner to leave it at the shop, as part of the ‘museum.’ Some of the American-exotica – the Popes and such like – are a case in point, though as with everything, they may always be for sale if the offer is right…

Interestingly, a lot of motorcycles in the shop – and Yesterdays’ adverts – are American. I asked the guys why this is so. And the explanation makes perfect sense. Of course, during WWI the Dutch were neutral – whereas the British, Germans, French et al, the main suppliers of motorcycles, were busily engaged in war. Consequently, there was still a demand on the Dutch market for brand new machinery – and the Americans stepped in and sated that desire. It meant lots of machines came over – and also that brand loyalties were established. Hence, in Holland, there are machines we rarely see in Britain – things like Reading Standards, Popes, Aces, Hendersons and American Excelsiors (American X in the UK) – plus plenty of more familiar (though still scarce over here) Indians and Harleys. These American marques remain popular too and not with just the Yesterdays’ customers – Thys owns one of the nicest Aces I’ve ever seen, an ‘original paint’ example complete with wheel-discs and fully documented history. It’s not for sale. Apparently, the Dutch police also rated the Ace highly and they were a machine of choice; there’s still, by the Yesterdays’ mens’ reckoning, at least seven or eight other Aces within 20km of Nederweert.

Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles workshopOther motorcycles are the possessions of Thys and Geert too. Thys still owns maybe 10 motorcycles, among them a vintage SS100 (“I had to sell three bikes – a 680 Brough, a Dutch Simplex and a Pope – to finance it,” he says) and that wonderful, patina-ed AJS K10. “It’s a fabulous anti-stress pill,” he grins, pointing at the flat-tank 1928 500cc ohc machine. “Take it out and start it up and all stress disappears!” He’s also sold a veteran FN, owned since 1982, recently. “I needed the money as I’m rebuilding my house…” he explained in a slightly doleful tone which will sound familiar to many of us… Geert’s collection has reduced further, admitting to owning ‘three or four’ among them an FN, the machine he rides most regularly. “The 1914 and 1920 are exactly the same,” he explains, as we stand alongside his machine. “They’re stable and long, capable of 45/50mph. I’ve had lots of FNs – 1905, a 1908, 1910, pretty much every year from then on until 1925-ish.”

Thys tells a story about the potential pitfalls of displaying one’s own machines. Apparently, he had a original paint, mint condition 1919 Harley-Davidson and sidecar – a visitor fell for the machine spectacularly, writing a letter every week for four years, until Thys relented and sold it to him!

Thys and Geert still live close by, Thys about five km away, Geert maybe 20km. They tell me Nederweert is a convenient place to have the business. Geert; “The A2 is just over there,” he explains, pointing, “Though really it doesn’t matter where you are, they will find you!” However, the location does surely make it easier for dispatching sold machines. While we talked, a truck arrived outside – it was to pick up an already packaged 750cc MV Agusta America, a commission sale, as many of the later machines are. Geert admitted; “I don’t have a clue about MVs, but managed to sell it.” The America was off to France, in its sturdy wooden packing case, made for Yesterdays by a local firm – Geert showed me an empty case, explaining how the motorcycle could be securely tied down. He then showed me the case a 1907 Peugeot V-twin, bought from Mexico, arrived in, which wasn’t so sturdy, though happily the French machine arrived unscathed.

Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles The quantity and quality of the motorcycles is, in truth, almost overwhelming in one visit. I decided to do a quick count up best I could of all the machines there – I reckoned on counting 15 Indians (plus a pushbike), eight Harleys, two each of Henderson, Ace, Pope, a quartet of Nortons, Pope, Reading Standard, three veteran Triumphs, an Ascot Pullin, a Super X…then I lost count and direction and decided to give it up as a bad job…however, suffice to say, there’s plenty of exotica. I retired to the bar for another coffee, with the downed-tools workforce and visitor Hans, another who’d dropped in for a chat. A Harley man (and local) with an enviable collection, he’d decided he’s on the lookout for an 11-50 small-tank Brough Superior, from 1934/35 – quite specific! In his excellent English, he regaled us with a few tales over coffee, with a couple of pointers to other locals with spectacular collections – ones to follow up another time, hopefully.

As we sat in a happy group, the language barrier not stopping the laughter, Geert surveyed all around him and noted in a hushed-but-happy tone and with a satisfied smile on his face; “In our shop, there are never grumpy people…” bike

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