Archives: The Iconic Big D Cycle

Larry Lawrence | February 25, 2020

Archives: The Iconic Big D Cycle

On a recent weeklong visit to Dallas, I had a full schedule of activities planned almost to the minute, but fortunately for me, I lucked into a little free time one afternoon and decided to take an unscheduled visit to one of the America’s legendary motorcycle shops – Big D Cycle. I Googled the address, plugged into my GPS and after battling Dallas’ notorious traffic, managed to pull up the Big D, not too long before closing time.

Archives: The Iconic Big D Cycle

Big D Cycle owner Keith Martin standing next to a classic Triumph inside his famous shop. (Larry Lawrence photo)

Situated in the middle of an industrial park, the outside the shop was fairly non-descript outside of the Big D Cycle sign, which underneath the Big D logo read “Vintage British Restorations” and “Competition Motorcycles.” Then I walked into the place and whoa! My eyes opened wide and I’m not so sure my mouth didn’t follow suit. The first thing I saw up on a stand being worked on was a Vincent. Then I looked around and there were classic motorcycles everywhere I looked – a group of historic racing machines among them. As unassuming as Big D looked from the outside, once you’re in the place you are truly in what can only be described as vintage motorcycle heaven.

While there I was fortunate to get to meet Big D’s owner Keith Martin and his two right-hand men in Ryan Ambrose, a multi-time vintage racing national champion who has worked with Keith for 16 years and Scott Aday, a childhood friend of Keith’s who’s worked at the shop for 10 years.

Big D is one of the most recognizable motorcycle shop names in racing circles in the. The shop, founded by Motorcycle Hall of Famer Jack Wilson, became famous in the 1960s for building Land Speed Record winning machines. It also sponsored countless racers over the years with riders like Gary Nixon, Buddy Elmore, Rusty Bradley, Jess Thomas, Jon Minonno, and Mike Kidd, among the better known. Today there is no bigger name in vintage racing and historic road runs than Big D. The shop and its riders have won dozens of national championships in vintage and historic racing.

The roots of Big D can be traced back to Dalio Motorcycle Sales in nearby Fort Worth in the 1950s. That’s where Jack Wilson worked as a mechanic and where he kicked off a half-century of building record-setting speed machines. In 1954 Jack and a buddy, J.H. “Stormy” Mangham, an airline pilot, constructed a streamliner, nicknamed the Texas Ceegar. Wilson worked his engine magic on a standard Thunderbird unit, developing it steadily over time. In 1956, Wilson’s nitro-fueled 650cc Thunderbird engine-powered fellow Texan Johnny Allen to a 214.40 mph world speed record for motorcycles on the Bonneville Salt Flats. This feat inspired Triumph to name their 1959 model the Bonneville.

An ex-Gary Nixon Triumph and Dick Mann BSA are just of the few of the historic beauties under Big D’s roof. (Larry Lawrence photo)

Pete Dalio retired, sold his Ft. Worth shop and went on the road sponsoring a young racer named Gary Nixon. In the early 1960s the Dallas Triumph dealership was not doing well and they asked Wilson if he could take over. As a working mechanic, Wilson didn’t have the funds necessary to take on the Triumph franchise, but he still had a good relationship with his old boss Dalio, and the two went into business as partners of the newly-formed Big D Cycle in 1963.

Wilson was a hard worker and hired excellent employees and Big D thrived as a Triumph and Yamaha dealership in the 1960s. In the late 1960s Big D sold off the Yamaha portion of the dealership and remained an exclusively Triumph shop.

Big D ran along smoothly until 1983, when Triumph went bankrupt. It seemed Big D was doomed. But a funny thing happened. The shop never slowed down.

“Jack continued on,” Martin said. “He’d acquired enough stock that he kept selling new Triumphs for another couple of years. And starting in the 1970s when things first started going bad [for Triumph], Jack bought up a lot of other dealers and even imported a lot of parts from England. He had a big mail-order business for Triumph parts in the 1980s.”

Due in large measure to the vintage motorcycle craze that started in the mid-1980s, Big D was able to make a successful transition from dealership to vintage shop relatively painlessly.

That’s when Martin came into the picture, first as a customer buying parts for his Triumph and a guy who liked to hang out at the shop.

“I had a job back then where I was on the road a lot and then would get four or five days off,” Martin said. “I just hung out at the shop, swept the floors and did whatever was needed and Jack would give me a little bit of this and a little of that. I just wanted to help.”

Keith said he decided to go vintage road racing and Jack basically built the bike for him. “He let me get in there and help just to sort of teach me how things were done.”

While going on his first racing trip to Savannah, Georgia and Daytona, Keith called work one day only to find the company he worked for had been bought out and everyone was fired.

“So here I was on top of the world doing my first vintage racing and I find out I lost my job,” Martin recalls. “Jack told me not to worry, that I could have a job at the shop when I got home.”

That was in 1988 and Martin has been in the motorcycle business ever since.

The Big D crew (L to R) Ryan Ambrose, Scott Aday and Keith Martin. (Photo by Ricky Pearson)

Martin worked at Big D until the opportunity came in the 1998 to open his own Triumph dealership. He opened RPM Cycle. Wilson meanwhile fell ill and eventually sold Big D. The new owner struggled and in 1999 Martin stepped in to save what was left of the business and also acquired the rights to the Big D name in the process.

“I talked to Jack about it – he was still alive at the time – and he told me to do what I needed to do to make a go of it,” Martin said, his voice welling up with emotion in remembering his old friend and mentor. “Jack was a great old guy.”

With Keith the legacy of Big D was in the right hands. In 2007 Martin sold RPM Cycle to an investor and after nearly a decade’s absence, re-opened Big D Cycle in the location it is now.

Today Big D continues as one of the premier vintage restorers and racing shops in the country. Over the years Martin has acquired some of the most historically significant British racing machines in America. In addition to some significant land speed record motorcycles, Big D is also home to ex-factory Triumph and BSAs ridden by Dick Mann, Gene Romero and Gary Nixon just to name a few.

Keith and his crew are gearing up for the 2020 season, which in addition to vintage racing, they are running again in the Motorcycle Cannonball for the third time as Team Norton, adding a fourth rider and machine to the squad this year.

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Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.