Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Shop Stop: Iron Oxide Engineering

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? If you asked me at age 5, I would've said "farmer" - I liked tractors. At age 10 someone asked me this same question and I replied "I want to be just like Dick Miles". I liked motorcycles.

Dick, owner of iron Oxide Engineering and Holding Co. was one of my fathers best friends. They shared a passion for vintage British motorcycles. Over the years I traveled with My dad and Dick to AHRMA races all over the country, often times in the "China Clipper" which is Dicks sixty-something year old cargo truck that's been decked out like a turn of the century steam ship, complete with a portholes, bunks and a head with working shower.

Between races, my dad and I would go down to Iron Oxide Engineerings home base, a warehouse located in an unsuspecting alleyway on the outskirts of Coatesville Pennsylvania. The space looks practically abandoned with all it's windows boarded up with plywood - a good security measure. The front door is heavily barred and locked. Above the door is a faded hand lettered "IOE" leaving outsiders to wonder what goes on in the behemoth of a building. Next to the door is a contraption consisting of a penny washer wrapped to a wire sticking out of a piece of 1/2 lead pipe leading through the wall where it connects to an old brass bell hanging inside. The word doorbell, is faintly visible on a piece of masking tape underneath, identifying it's purpose.

I have long been meaning to get over there and have a look but every time I stopped by, no one was around. On one occasion, a woman working at a nearby laundromat came out back for a smoke. She eyed me suspiciously as I rang the "doorbell". "no one's in there, the gates locked!" she snarled. "do you know Dick?" I asked. "Miles?" she snapped, "yeah I know him.." She continued: "He's got a whole bunch of junk in that place - well, he says it's worth a lot...." she paused, then softened "How do you know him?" observing our vast age difference. "He was a friend of my fathers." "Well he's out here most weekends, making a whole lot of racket." "weekends huh? I'll stop back." The woman again eyed me suspiciously as I hopped on my Triumph parked around the corner. "Sometimes he's around during the week too, you never know with that guy" she hollered as I fired up the bike "Ok, thanks!" I shouted back.

Last week, I happened to find myself wrapping up my day just outside of Coatesville and I decided to swing by again. This time, the inside door was open.

Dicks Manx Norton race bike. This is his main racer.
193? Norton. Awesome Pillion pad and fork girders!

I hadn't seen Dick in almost a year (since my wedding) but we had exchanged voice mails many times, so he wasn't at all surprised by my dropping by and he invited my in for a tour.

Dick opened the heavily reinforced gate wearing tan chino's, Jack Purcell tennis shoes, a grubby white tee shirt, a pair of steel wire rim glasses and boyish grin thats second only to his boyish enthusiasm. When he speaks, theres a warmness and sincerity about him that makes Dick very easy to like. He's quick witted, funny and a charmer, but you can tell theres a mischievous side to him. Not in a malicious way, more of a sly, adolescent-boy way.

Dick Miles is a total character. A one time magician, escape artist (ask about jumping into the Skukill River in a straight jacket) ordained minister ($1.00 sent to an address on the back of a match book) juggler, unicyclist, world traveler, motorcycle racer, car racer, wooden boat racer and more recently vintage go-kart racer. Dick might possibly be the worlds real life "most interesting man alive".

I asked if he'd mind me snapping a few pictures. "Sure" though throughout the visit, he remained decidedly camera-shy.
Dicks shop is divided up into many different areas. The go-kart area is up front. Here he has several karts, a wall full of trophies and a bench full of 2 stroke engines. "I racked up enough points to qualify for national standing" Dick boasted "but it doesn't hurt that the track up above Oley holds races every week. Some people have to travel around to different tracks each week just to gather points." Dick travels too, mid west races and even California - all for go-karts. "I've raced everything - cars, cycles and boats, but nothing's more fun than drifting the back wheels around a hair pin turn going 60mph on a kart sized for a kid". Sized for a kid, yes, but the engines are geared for the older "kids". They run on methanol and nitrous.

Dicks kart racing team has recently expanded. Now occasionally racing for Iron Oxide is Lady Faye Pierson, a spry woman with a long history of kart knowledge says Dick. She wins races too.
Upstairs is Dicks office which overlooks the entire space. His initials are hand painted on the glass windows of the door. A faded sign reads "Almost everything is for sale, if you don't see a price just ask". Not surprising, nothing is marked with a price, but if the offer is too good for Dick to pass up, you could probably purchase almost anything.

These goggles are in fact priced at $0.59 a set, though they were priced 60 years ago and inflation has undoubtably raised the price quite a bit.

Behind some stuff I spotted my Dads picture. I have the same one hanging in my garage. "theres another one of your Pop riding a Norton at the Isle of Mann, downstairs" said Dick "your dad spent a lot of time hanging out here you know, he took home a number of bikes over the years, much to your mothers dismay, I'm sure"

I shared the story of my recent acquisition of my 51 Triumph and how I had all my water conditioning supplies pushed to one side of the van to make room for the bike. "just like your old man" said dick smiling, only this smile wasn't the same boyish grin as usual - more of a moment lost in thought.

Every square inch of the warehouse is covered with interesting antiques and oddities. Old cars, boats, model airplanes, vintage pogo sticks, hula girl statues, art of all kinds, vintage posters and parts. Lots and LOTS of parts. Tanks, wheels frames, engines, fairings plenty to build dozens of project bikes. "It may come as no surprise, but I was recently diagnosed with adult ADD, which probably explains all the unfinished projects around here".

Not all projects are unfinished though. There's a guest room that looks like a ships cabin, much like the China Clipper, complete with steam vents, portholes, bunk beds and a an old cast iron claw foot tub. "I usually clean parts or soak my leathers in there" he said "but I have bathed in it from time to time." I imagine Dick laying in a bubble bath with a fedora, smoking a cigar and reading the paper. I'm probably not far off.

Besides collecting, showing/racing bikes, cars, boats and go-karts, Dicks shop is a fully functional machine shop complete with milling, lathes and literally the biggest drill i have ever seen. Its the size of a tool shed and its bits were from 2"s up (way up). "if you ever need to drill a giant hole in something, you know where to come". Dick saved the press from a salvage yard but admits that besides a great conversation piece, it rarely serves any real purpose.

As a former navy machinist, Dick can fabricate almost anything out of metal. He's set up to make parts from scratch, or file down valves and valve seats. There is a tool for everything and then some.
Before I left, dick gave me a sign he had made featuring a line from a Humphrey Bogart film titled African Queen. "Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow". Words of wisdom - I too suffer from adult ADD.
I got the sign outside and saw that Dick had personalized it for me with his signature followed by his race number 44.
At 34, I'm married, own a home with my beautiful wife, own and operate my fathers successful water filtration business and have a garage with a couple of old motorcycle projects. Still one day, I hope to be just like Dick Miles.

My Brother in law, John Young has some pictures from the 2003 Turkey Pro, an annual post Thanksgiving Bike rally held each year at various locations. On this year it was held at Iron Oxide Engineering. Check out more GREAT pictures from Dicks shop from!


  1. You inherited the best parts of your dad. And your lucky to be able to hang out with his old friends who thought the world of him. ;) xoxox

  2. What a great description of a hell of a guy. I really like hearing Kate's stories about race trips with your dad and Dick. Your writing is wonderful -- please keep it up!

  3. How can I reach Dick Miles? I recently purchased a vintage 50cc race bike..a Benelli engine with a tank hand lettered Motobi. In faded lettering on the tail painted IronOxide Racing. I would love to know more about the bike...thanks...Jerry...please email

  4. I stumbled upon your blog from off of 4Q.
    Great story Man! I'll be back to read more.

  5. Jerry - Dick is hard to get in touch with since he doesn't use the internet, but if you're really trying to reach him, you can find him racing his go-kart almost every sunday up in Oreville, PA:

    RFSUL: Thanks for checking out my blog. Check back for updates or see my shop blog which is updated very frequently:

  6. Thanks for the info, I would love to know some history of the bike. Jerry

  7. Matt, If your gonna follow in Snuff's footprints , you better get a hall pass from your beautiful wife( or bring her out here) and come out here to Oregon and ride with the squrl. You have an open invitation. Peace, SQURL

  8. I think you said it all about Dick when you described him as the "most interesting man alive.' My friend Dave has a good saying about Dick I like too: "Dick Miles before he dicks you!"

  9. Squrl- I'll take you up on that! Also if you're back east get in touch, you'll have to stop by my shop and see the mess I've gotten into with british engineering...

    JerryF - I have Dicks contact info if you want it, email me @ designbymattsmith (at) yahoo (dot) com

    Whizfolios - hahhaa thats hilarious!

  10. Great story Matt, Dick is NO DOUBT The Most Interesting Man Alive !
    I rode a 250 Ducati out of his shop back in the 80's and we had SOME FUN. Dick and your Dad and I went to a lot of races back then! Lots of good memories as I am sure you do to!
    I am happy to see that you are enjoying Motorcycles the way Snuffy did,
    He would be SO PROUD of you !
    Nick Phillips

  11. do you have any more photos of that Velocette KTT?

  12. @occhioLungo - I will be going over to Dicks shop again soon. I will be sure to shoot the Velocette and get all the background on it. Check back soon!

  13. Matt I stumbled upon your Blog. Great to relive some of the memories from 10-15 years ago. I also had the pleasure of visiting Dicks Shop. Great place, and he is one of kind! The last Turkey Pro I attended was in 1999 or 2000??

  14. I too stumbled upon this site looking for faded truck door hand lettered designs,,I hand paint signs & old trucks,reading you'r blog on Dick Miles was interesting to say the least,,I am 53 years old & have a couple buddies that remind me of Dick,,may he enjoy life & good health because when this generation is gone,the world will lose so much,thanks for sharing,,Bill Hurt,,Portsmouth Ohio,my Cousin with the same name lives at Montana,,is into restoring selling tradin BSA's can find him on FB ,Thanks again,,Bill

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