I ran into Mel Downs at Daytona’s Alligator Enduro last March—literally. Fortunately, the van was only moving about half a mile an hour. It happened while I was trying to hold the clutch, brake and gas pedals in at the same time because the V-8 was having trouble burning Starvin’ Marvin’s gasoline. The outside mirror caught Mel on the back of his helmet as he walked near the start line. Boy was I glad he was wearing a helmet; his head is so hard it might have broken the glass.
Mel had disappeared for years. I never asked where, but I did look for tattoos and watched to see if he moved his eyes instead of turning his head. He had lost weight, but I didn’t care if he’d been to a fat farm or a license plate factory; it was good to see him—as good as taking a deep breath after a broken rib heals.
First, Mel showed me his number three Harley Cafe Racer to which he’d attached a sidecar, causing strangers to yell, “How could you do that?”
Even to me it looked like a garbage barge attached to an America’s Cup challenger. Mel had always been a master at mix-‘n’-matching, but the Harley combo was like a coyote jacket on the Statue of Liberty.
The first time I met Mel we were 60 miles out on a 120-mile enduro. I was waving riders off the trail as I crawled along, sifting my fingers through the deep sand, trying to find my drive chain and praying I’d also recover all the lost pieces of my last master link.
Along comes Mel on a Yamaha 80 that sounded like a two alarm blaze at a fireworks factory. He said he was part of a volunteer sweep crew, but I’m certain he was scouting for tools that on most rides were scattered by the ton before the invention of the fanny pack.
His little 80 was drawing from an Evinrude outboard carburetor and was blowing out of a reverse cone megaphone made from two CO2 nozzles and a 12 gauge shotgun barrel. Mel had always rated his personal knowledge of the internal combustion engine as somewhere between that of Smokey Yunick and Rudolph Diesel.
This meant that his Yamaha 80 had been ported, relieved, bored, radiused and fly-cut until the powerband was between 12,222 and 12,223 rpm. It developed maximum torque just before the paint bubbled on the clutch cover.
Mel’s ugliest mix-‘n’-match resulted in the first raised-roof van in the country. He was worried about brain damage from hitting his head on the roof of his early model Ford Econoline, so he bought a wooden Garvey-hull boat from a clamdigger, bolted it upside down atop the Ford then cut the roof out. We wondered if he could turn the whole rig upside down, put it in water and sail away.
Two of Mel’s more presentable creations were a BSA 441 Victor engine in a Montessa 250 frame and a marvelous “Grumph” he helped Cliff Ferris build: a Triumph 500 cannon-proof engine in a Greeves “rubber donut” frame. Cliff wanted to call it a “Treeves,” an indication that Cliff had hit too many low branches too hard, too often, very solidly.
Mel’s most ambitious mix-‘n’-match was his attempt to build the world’s most powerful dirt motorcycle: a Porsche-BMW. He started with a conglomerate 356/912 engine and an R69US Beemer twin that had turned itself into a single on a concrete traffic island. He hacksawed the frame in half, then heated and straightened the front downtubes to make room for the 1600cc quad-boxer.
After ordering spokes for the 21” Akront front rim from a company that claimed they could lace any rim to any hub, Mel made a bell housing from the mating edge of a Volkswagen transmission welded to a flat aluminum plate. When aluminum suppliers wanted a king’s ransom for heavy flat plate Mel went to an Army Navy store bought a mess-hall size frying pan and cut the bottom out. Attaching the transmission was just a matter of drilling and countersinking bolt holes and he was very pleased to find that the Porsche flywheel holes matched perfectly with the BMW pressure plate.
Before he carved off the starter boss, he slid an old starter motor alongside the transmission. This was going to be another perfect fit so Mel planned an electric-start dirt bike.
But as with so many mix-‘n’-match projects, when it gets too easy it loses its challenge so Mel sold the beast to John Forbes who booked off to Florida and fell off the edge of the earth. Maybe it could have been the world’s most powerful dirt bike.
Yeah, that’s it! And maybe the Statue of Liberty would look good in a coyote jacket.
This story originally appeared in our June 2018 issue.