Some of the best things in life happen at the most random times. What adds enjoyment to long road trips is spontaneous connections to other people and magnificent views. All of the best road trips have a mix of the two. Who would have thought cars and an affinity for WWII history would be the catalysts for a new friendship? Then add the male bonding taking place in picturesque Napa Valley. If you drive long enough on a road trip with stops along the way, random moments of happiness or bonding are inevitable. An airplane-powered VW is a great conversation starter.

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Radial engines lined up and the main attraction, the VW Beetle.

There is always something fascinating about old-school roadside stops, be it a garage, shop, museum, gas station or a house. This shop/garage was like no other. Nieman’s Motorcycle Rentals has, in my opinion, a one of a kind “marketing sign.”

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Not a common sight at a motorcycle rental place.

Glimpses Of The Old School And Unique “Marketing Signs”

The Napa Valley drive gets an interesting twist when it is time for a break for rest and food. I park the car in a shopping plaza and see an old, sun-weathered, faded red GMC truck. The red truck parked all the way in the back corner. Not sure if parked for marketing purposes or just the classic car guy parking away from everyone for car preservation. The truck had no visible markings to advertise for a store or that it is a shop truck of some kind.

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The GMC red truck that led me indirectly to the VW.

Airplane Engine In a VW Bug?

One eye closed, the other in the viewfinder and the camera’s shutter firing off. In the top left corner of the viewfinder, a rare sight appears. Immediately, both eyes open, the camera shutter stops and I see it, a radial engine-powered, flat black Volkswagen Beetle. The storefront gives off instant flashbacks of any car/motorcycle related shop on Route 66. A conversation strikes up with the VW builder, Mike Nieman the embodiment of everything good in a gearhead.

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Not something you see everyday or anywhere else.

Gearhead Bonding

The unexpected meeting begins with Mr. Nieman touching up the VW Bug with some flat-black paint and asks “am I ruining your shots?” My response “not at all, cars get worked on it adds to the shots.” That line was the gearhead icebreaker.

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A gearhead (Mr. Nieman) and his radial engine powered VW.

Mr. Nieman proceeds to tell the stories of each radial engine in his possession. All the stories are interesting and unique; you do not hear this every day. The Volkswagen is the eye candy for any tourist (usually male) that walks past the store. Eight-teen-year-old Mr. Nieman built the radial engine VW Bug. I ask “how is it to drive?” “a mix of scary and fun,” is the response. That is all a gearhead needs to hear to be fascinated and hooked.

Flashbacks In An Office

Mr. Nieman welcomes me into the office to show me around. The inside is just more flashbacks of indoor shops on Route 66. The machinery, artwork, and memorabilia are some that take years to obtain. As one who enjoys all things gearhead and old-school, it was a paradise with rich layers of history embedded with stories for each object.

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Inside Nieman Motorcycle Rentals/Jodies Design Shop
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A hand drawing of a vintage airplane’s cockpit.
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Machine gun from a plane that crashed. Notice the celebrity pictures above the gun who have been here, Dave Grohl (left) and Carlos Santana (right).

Lasting Memories

The gearhead show-and-tell continues, it all lasted about an hour. It was one of the major highlights of The Northern Californa Road Trip (click here for the blog post). So much so that it deserved a separate blog post. The stories, the memorabilia, the common interests even generations apart is one of the most significant aspects of gearhead culture. I felt honored to meet this man and if you are ever in the Napa, California area go to Nieman’s Motorcycle Rentals. Then ask about the flat-black VW Bug. You will hear great stories and gain a new friend in the process.

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