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Picture story: The mystery of the unknown motorcycle masterpiece

Published: 19 September 2015

Updated: 18 September 2015

The story begins in 1967 when a plumber discovers a motorcycle – complete, beautiful, bearing a 1917 plate – bricked up (or boarded, reports conflict) behind a wall in an address in Chicago. The name on the tank reads ‘Traub’ – a name nobody recognises as a motorcycle manufacturer. Closer inspection reveals almost every component of the bike to be unique – highly advanced for its time and astonishingly accomplished for an unknown builder.

Beautifully devised, machined and sand-cast, not one of the major parts has a match on any known production motorcycle. Not the three-speed constant-mesh gearbox (technology brand new to the biggest manufacturers), nor the unique rear brake which used a cam to operate shoes both inside and outside the drum, nor its adjustable crankcase breather or handmade pistons. Its origins have been tentatively tied to one Gottlieb Richard Traub, ‘experimental machinist’ and occasional writer of letters to the Q&A pages of Motorcycle Illustrated in the early 1900s – and indeed there was a motorcycle repair shop named ‘Richard Traub’ in Chicago at that time. How the bike ended up in the wall in the house is usually explained by the fact it was stolen by a boy whose irate father, upon discovering the crime, forced him to join the army, where he became cannon fodder for World War I.

Traub may too have perished on the fields of France or he may have changed tack and built telescopes, before dying peacefully (though presumably still narked by the theft of his masterpiece) in 1952. Accounts vary – as they do about the capacity of the bike, which is definitely either 1180cc, or 1278cc. Or 1311cc. Today the Traub resides in the Wheels Through Time museum in North Carolina, where owner and museum founder Dale Walksler still daily savours the mystery: “For a machine to have such advanced features, unparalleled by other motorcycles of the same era, is truly outstanding. But how on earth could a machine have been produced in such great form, with capabilities that far exceed that of any comparable machine, without the knowledge of the rest of the motorcycle industry during that time?”

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