On October 5 2014, New York City-based auction house Guernsey’s auctioned a once-in-a-lifetime collection from outlaw country musician Waylon Jennings at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. The centerpiece of the collection is the 1959 Ariel Cyclone motorcycle that originally belonged to Jennings’ best friend and mentor Buddy Holly.
The Ariel is beautifully preserved with just over 4,000 original miles, and has not been ridden in over twenty years, serving as a symbol of a pivotal time in American music history. It sold for almost half a million dollars, and went to the Buddy Holly Museum in Lubbock, Texas.
“It’s got remarkable provenance,” said Arlan Ettinger, President of Guernsey’s, who was standing in Jessi Colter’s living room, staring at the 1959 Ariel Cyclone when we spoke. “It’s completely original.”
The story of the motorcycle and how Waylon Jennings came to own it is one of the great tragedies in musical history.
Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly
Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly had an incredible — if short — history together. In 1957, Waylon Jennings was a DJ at KLLL in Lubbock, Texas, as well as playing some live performances in the region. During a live date, Buddy Holly’s father approached Jennings and asked him to play Holly’s record at KLLL. Holly also intended to produced records for other artists at the time, and took on Jennings as his first artist.
Holly then hired Jennings to play electric bass for him during his “Winter Dance Party Tour,” soon after Holly parted ways with the Crickets. The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. At the time, tour buses were the conventional way to get to dates, but the buses were horribly ill-equipped for the task of shuttling the musicians in the cold weather. At one point, drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalized for frostbite.
Frustrated by the conditions on the bus, Buddy Holly ended up chartering a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza — helmed by 21-year-old local pilot Roger Peterson — after their show in Clear Lake, Iowa, in order to avoid a long bus trip to Fargo, North Dakota. Jennings was supposed to be on the flight, but gave up his seat to J.P. Richardson — The Big Bopper — who had a cold and wasn’t looking forward to the bus ride.
Before he left, Holly joked with Jennings: “I hope your ol’ bus freezes up!” and Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes!”
During the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, the Beechcraft crashed outside Clear Lake, killing Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens, as well as the pilot.
Buddy Holly’s Ariel Cyclone
While he was into cars, Holly also had a fascination with motorcycles. Waylon Jennings later told the story about Buddy Holly purchasing a 1959 Ariel Cyclone, which appeared on the blog, Saving Country Music:
“They loved Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One,’ and when they got to Dallas…they decided on the spur of the moment to buy motorcycles and drive back home on them.” Waylon recalled. “They took a cab into the city and walked into a Harley-Davidson shop. They had their eyes on a trio of 74-inchers, but the proprietor didn’t think they had any money and treated them like a bunch of bums. ‘Hell, you boys couldn’t even begin to handle the payments on that.’
“Then they went over to Miller’s Motorcycles, which specialized in English bikes. There, Joe B (Maudlin, the Crickets’ then-bass player), and J.I. (Allison, the drummer) bought a Triumph each, a TR6 and Thunderbird, respectively, while Buddy picked out a maroon and black Ariel Cyclone, with a high compression 650cc Huntsmaster engine. They paid cash, bought matching Levi jackets and peaked caps with wings on them, and rode home through a thunderstorm.”
There’s even some grainy footage of Buddy Holly riding the bike:
Apparently, there’s some conflict about who bought what, because some accounts say Joe Maudlin actually bought the Thunderbird motorcycle. while J.I. Allison bought a Triumph Trophy. Regardless, Holly was transfixed by the black Ariel Cyclone 650cc.
Holly’s father ended up keeping the motorcycle until 1970. In 1979, for Waylon’s 42nd birthday, the remaining Crickets — Joe B. Mauldin, J.I. Allison and Sonny Curtis, who also spent time in the Crickets — tracked down the 1959 Ariel Cyclone, bought it, and had it hand delivered to north Texas where Jennings found it sitting there in the middle of his hotel room after walking off stage that night.
“What else could I do?,” Jennings wrote years later. “I swung my leg over it, stomped on the kickstarter, and it burst into roaring life. First kick. It was midnight, and it sounded twice as loud bouncing off the walls of that hotel room. I knew Buddy wouldn’t mind.”
The 1958 Ariel Cyclone and Guernsey’s
Six months ago, Arlan Ettinger, President of Guernsey’s, got a call from a friend who was a consigner and buyer of vintage cars in the 1980s, when Geurnsey’s was first establishing itself as a seller of fine vintage automobiles. His friend referred him to Jessi Colter, Waylon Jennings’ widow and a groundbreaking country music performer in her own right.
Ettinger and Colter discussed selling the bike, but Ettinger felt that it wouldn’t do the bike justice to mix it in with some other auction. Jessi Colter made the decision to sell the Ariel, along with a treasure trove of 2,000 other items related to Waylon Jennings, including a pair of boots owned by Hank Williams, Willie Nelson’s braids, which he cut off to support his friend Waylon Jennings while he was struggling with sobriety, and a number of items formerly owned by Muhammad Ali.
(IMAGE SOURCE: Guernsey’s)